About 10 hours into a 13 hour flight I had exhausted most of the palatable on-board viewing options, including 2 terrible Japanese movies and Extraordinary Measures. “I’m a scientist! I don’t care about money!” Thanks for the memories, Harrison Ford. Anyway, I was in the midst of deciding between Meet the Robinsons and an Italian comedy about a middle-aged man’s sexual escapades (which is pretty much every Italian comedy), a choice even Sophie would find herself hard-pressed to make, when Up in the Air caught my eye. I was reluctant to select it, since it looked really boring and most likely pretentious. Then I remembered that I had actually really enjoyed the last pretentious movie I saw, the criminally underappreciated Synecdoche New York (see, even the title would make a film festival panel gag). Plus, the movie did get some Oscar buzz, so I pushed play. And it was good.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who fires people for other companies for a living. His job necessitates a lot of air travel; this detail is important because Ryan loves travelling. He loves accumulating miles. He loves hotel membership perks. He loves car rental membership perks. He loves airport lounges. He loves faceless and engineered processes and places. He can’t stand home, which is in Omaha (that might explain why he always wants to be away). His apartment has nothing in it but a bed and a closet. I don’t think I even saw a TV.
All of the above is a result of his personal philosophy, which he biblethumps to others during speaking seminars at hotel venues. His speech is always the same, and is entitled “What’s in your backpack?” The main gist is that all of our possesions, friends, attachments, etc. weigh us down and prevent us from moving forward. This point of view isn’t so surprising coming from someone who spends over 300 days a year away from home. He doesn’t want to travel to see new places; he travels to avoid attachments and familiarity. Ryan can probably describe the interior of every major airport in the US. But has he ever seen the Grand Canyon? Has he gone skiing in the rockies, or seen an SEC football game?
In fact, the main conflict comes into play when a hot-shot young company employee introduces a new online firing system, all done through the computer, eliminating the need to send people all over the country, and of course, lowering overhead. Would this be “insourcing?” How will Ryan deal with spending most of the year in Omaha? In one office? Commuting back home every day? Further complicating matters is the fact Ryan meets someone special on one of his trips, someone who shares his passion for the freedom of the road, but ironically raises doubts for Ryan about the desirability of his empty backpack philosphy.
George Clooney plays Ryan as a great guy, someone you wouldn’t mind hanging out with and talking to. He’s smart, funny, knows the right things to say, etc. But what are his hobbies? What’s his favorite color? How does he feel about healthcare? We never learn much about Ryan’s past either, but seeing as how unimportant it is to him, why should we care? This may seem unfulfilling, but I much prefer the ambiguity to gratuitous flashbacks to an emotionally distant father etc. However, as the movie progresses, we get a sense there is something more to Ryan as he begins to doubt and question his road warrior liffestyle. Not in the sense we’re uncovering a buried, hidden “true self”, but that a deeper person is starting to grow within, and question the motions his shell has been performing.
The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Vera Farmiga, who plays Ryan’s love interest Alex. Like Ryan, she puts forward a friendly face and knows all the right moves and phrases. Unlike Ryan, however, there’s a lot underneath. Hint: it isn’t all good.
The film does get a little heavy-handed during the firing sequences. Wow, so firing people is a brutal, careless process that hurts lives? We’re breaking some new ground here. In some ways, this movie would have worked much better 2 years ago without the pandering for sympathy for the jobless. It’s really the only weak point of the film.
It is well directed by Ivan Reitman’s son. Can’t remember his first name….anyway, it’s much better than his previous Thank You for Smoking. Unlike the previous film, Up in the Air is not a comedy, and is more classifiable as a tragedy though there is humor in the film.
I don’t give star reviews, but I do recommend this movie. Please actively go out and try to see it. It’s one of the better movies of 2009.