Going into the cinema knowing that a film has been nominated for nearly half a dozen Oscars can sometimes do detriment to your enjoyment of it. The expectation that comes with the glitz of the red carpet, long-winded speeches and much-coveted golden statues can detract from the essence of a good script and captivating performances. Luckily, Up in the Air, Jason Reitman’s follow-up to the much-acclaimed and universally-loved Juno (2007), deserves every bit of the attention and potential accolade bestowed upon it.
The film tells the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a suave “corporate downsizer” – very topical. In a role not dissimilar to that of Michael Clayton, Clooney is brought in to do other people’s dirty work. Engaged by companies “who don’t have the balls to sack their own employees” he flies all over the States firing people left, right and centre in an effort to reach a mythical 10 million air-miles. In the hands of many actors Bingham would be more a villain than the smoothly charismatic rogue that Clooney conjures, eliciting as much sympathy as he does criticism.
His disregard and lack of compassion for those that he fires is called into question by the young, zealous and more morally conscious Nathalie (Anna Kendrick) who begins to open his eyes to the world outside his solitary shell and exclusive airport lounges. It is in one such frequent-flyer lounge that Bingham meets his enigmatic female counterpart Alex (Vera Farmiga) in an amusing exchange over loyalty cards and preferred car-rental companies. Their loyalty to big business is rewarded by fast-tracks and corporate perks whereas loyal employees whose ‘positions are no longer available’ are let go under the pretence of future opportunities – an injustice that the film criticises throughout and never fully resolves.
Alex shares Bingham’s preference for no-strings-attached meetings whenever their paths cross and is “the woman you don’t have to worry about”, although he soon does. Their fleeting relationship seems to develop into something more profound with a few tender exchanges and a tour of his high-school. The unexpected revelation at the end of the film is a very bold move that you will certainly not see coming and shatters any personal ‘journey’ (I do apologise) that Bingham has made.
Several other familiar faces reappear from Reitman’s last feature. A bearded Jason Bateman is as amusing as he is ruthless as the head of Bingham’s company and J. K. Simmons is the newly unemployed employee with whom we most acutely sympathise and the sole victim who is able to look to the future with some hope after one of Clooney’s charming spiels. A brief cameo from Zach Galifianakis (Alan in The Hangover!) in the film’s opening sequence is predictably funny!
A film that takes place primarily in transient spaces – airports, hotels and conferences centres, Up in the Air explores the conflict between belonging and personal freedom, human connection and solitude. In the first of many flights Bingham says that “to know me is to fly with me”. His home is the comfortable business-class seat of an inter-state American Airlines flight from Dallas to Omaha to St. Louis to Wichita to Miami and beyond… For him “moving is living” and as such we barely see him ‘at home’ anywhere – save for a sparsely furnished one bedroom apartment. Having long neglected his family obligations Bingham decides to attend his sister’s wedding. Despite saving the day and rescuing the groom from cold feet (a discussion held in a nursery with the two men sat on toddler-sized chairs!) he appears as a decidedly prodigal brother and there is a tangible awkwardness between the estranged siblings.
Moments of intense sadness are consistently paired with humour which means that the entire film is a real blend of emotion and comedy. One of its major successes is that this combination never strikes as false or formulaic. The most memorable instance of this juxtaposition occurs when Nathalie is dumped by text-message and Bingham quips that it’s “kinda like firing someone over the internet” (mocking the new system that she has pioneered at their company). We almost feel guilty laughing at his witty put-down given that Nathalie is in tears but can’t help but do so. An audience will want to laugh and cry in equal measure and often at the same time.
Reitman is able to create genuinely likeable, even loveable characters and he could not have asked anything more from his leading actors. In her first major role Anna Kendrick gives an outstanding performance which thoroughly merits her nomination for Actress in a Supporting Role. Initially a career-driven, supremely confident graduate her composure is slowly eroded by the effects that her actions have on the lives of others and her eyes are opened to the ways of the world. Vera Farmiga is suitably sultry and enticing to seduce Clooney and their interplay is very entertaining but whether her performance deserves the same merit as Kendrick is questionable.
Mr. Clooney, who admirably strives to avoid the mainstream (recent films such as The Men Who Stare at Goats and Burn After Reading are testament to this) seems to have found himself a role that does tick all the Oscar boxes. His nomination for Actor in a Leading Role is thoroughly deserved. Up in the Air is Reitman’s most rounded and mature film to do date but does not lose the charm, humour and quirkiness of Juno and Thank You For Smoking and he is certainly a strong contender for the Best Director win.
Up in the Air is continually uplifting and dejecting, jovial and serious. Sensitive to the fragile economic world in which we live and to the people who fear for their job security and well-being of their loved ones, it affirms the values of family and togetherness in the face of an uncertain future.