With a job that has him traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham leads an empty life out of a suitcase, until his company does the unexpected: ground him.
One glance at the title of this film could convey any number of metaphors. The term normally means a level of uncertainty about what’s going on or some sort of yet-to-developed idea. Or is it intended to be more literal than this? What exactly is up in the air? The characters feelings? Their relationship? Their baggage? Their life? Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t the young son of a reality tv-motivated family in Colorado (the kind of idea so undeveloped, it unraveled enormously). The answer, at least on the surface, is the film’s provocative anti-hero, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). He is ‘up in the air’.
Ryan Bingham works for a company that assists other businesses in making their employees redundant. He flies across America telling a number of unfortunate souls that their roles are no longer required and inspires them to think about the world of opportunity that has now landed on their laps. In his spare time, he gives inspirational talks on why people should lose their baggage and not have anything/body holding them back. In doing all this, he stacks up millions of airmiles with his only loyalty being to his airline and not to family or love interests. He has the demeanor of a travelling salesman but, instead of working door to door, he works (air) port to port.
Whilst many would resent working away so often, Ryan not only sees the plane journeys and hotel lifestyle as his ‘home’ but revels in it. After meeting a woman (Vera Farmiga) who seems to share his love of casual relationships, planes and loyalty cards (the type that are made out of graphite rather than nectar), he returns to the office to an announcement that his company are moving in a new strategic direction that puts his jet-set lifestyle under threat. The plan, formulated by young upstart Natalie (apparently an expert in efficiency), is that the company should begin dealing with their clients via webcam to save in travel costs. After heavily disputing the claim, Ryan is forced to take Natalie (Anna Kendrick) on the road to explain why his unproblematic, hassle-free life should stay intact.
This is where those feelings, relationship and baggage enter the fray, of course, and the real title of the film becomes clear. Faced with the prospect of being grounded, Ryan begins to contemplate what it might actually mean to have a home – except it’s not quite as sappy as it sounds.
Jason Reitman is an advocate of creating intelligent female roles in films. In Thank You For Smoking, he cast Maria Bello in the excellent role of Polly, an alcohol lobbyist. Then, with Juno, he created perhaps one of the strongest female characters in the last decade. Similarly, in Up in the Air, the two female leads are so much more than the typical film woman you would find in, say, any role that Katherine Heigl has picked since Knocked Up.
Here Vera Farmiga is every bit as smooth, strong, quick-witted and charismatic as her male counterpart while Anna Kendrick, again far from a romantic lead you would expect from an actress her age, is an astute, business-minded number cruncher. In addition to this, neither of the characters existed in the book that the film is based upon. Reitman must simply be a dream to work with as an actress.
This is not to say that they overshadow Clooney because they don’t. He is in a world of his own in a role that was, quite literally, written for him. However, this isn’t just the confident, smart and charming character that he has become famed for; here he shows an emerging vulnerability that brings his performance to another level, exposing the hidden emptiness behind the supposed contentment of his character.
It is this emptiness that directs what is a quintessential road movie, a genre which has always strongly related to the time in which it has been produced. Just as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde emerged from the shadows of Vietnam and Natural Born Killers and Thelma and Louise from post-Reagan/Gulf War era (you can follow this trend right back to the Great Depression), here we have a film exploring the tensions and crises of a worldwide economic crisis. This time, though, it is a literal reaction in that the main character is directly involved in dealing with the aftermath.
On top of this, we see other road movie facets like the romanticising of being alone and fighting for yourself, the breakdown of the family unit – which comes fully to the fore in a quite moving scene when Ryan returns home for his sister’s wedding – and, of course, the transport – that huge metallic structure in the air – that becomes his only promise of being.
The film plays heavily to Reitman’s independent ties, complete with the cool folky soundtrack (stand-out songs include a jazzed-up “This Land is Your Land”, “Help Yourself” and “Up in the Air”, the latter of which was sent on a cassette tape to Reitman after the writer had lost his job) but, unlike Garden State and Juno, here the focus is on a mature main character and, when George Clooney puts in a performance like this, it can’t really go wrong.