Up in the air, it can be lonely. And vacuous, and painful. For Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man hired by companies across the US to fire people from their jobs, life is pretty much limited to airports and American Airlines flights. He is bored on the inside, although on the outside he flaunts a sense of dire purpose as he flits from one airport to another, one depressing office to another—that too, when the economic meltdown is at its peak. “We make limbo tolerable,” he says, describing his job. Many Americans loathe him; he is not only fallible but seemingly beyond redemption.
In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, the protagonist has an understated, moving existential tug about him, and for Clooney it is unlike most roles he has played before. Ryan seeps into Clooney’s hunky, all-American persona. The actor gets the tragicomic quality of Ryan just right, and his Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for this role is justified.
Packed: (above) Clooney’s character dreams of the moment when he will complete one million flying miles; Clooney and Farmiga
Besides being the star representative of the Omaha-based “future solutions” company, Ryan is also a motivational speaker. His mantra for distressed souls looking for purpose in dark times is, “Empty the backpack”, and start packing only that which fulfils you alone: “Your relationships are the heaviest components of your life”; “The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans, we are sharks”; “Make no mistake, we all die alone”. His animated litanies are a way of justifying his own banishment of meaningful human connection. The only relationship he has is with the mysterious and beautiful Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another executive frequent flyer, whom he met at one of the airports—“Just think of me as you with a vagina,” she tells him—and all is hunky-dory between the accidental couple. His family—two sisters, one of whom is about to get married—however, is a conventional lot that misses his long absences.
At Ryan’s coldly profit-driven corporate headquarters, there’s a new recruit—Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), a young Ivy League graduate who has moved to Omaha following her boyfriend and who, in the corporate textbook sense, is a prospective profit-driver for the company. Anna and Ryan go on a tour together to fire people and the quirks and insecurities of all the three characters unfold seamlessly.
Up in the Air is a taut, unpretentious film propelled entirely by the two things that matter the most in good film-making: writing and performance. There is a fair amount of pop-philosophizing here, but the lines never quite overwhelm the film’s soul, which is Ryan’s pitiable, but understandable condition. Ryan has always dreamt of the moment when he would complete one million flying miles and if at all that moment arrives, he will likely remember only one thing that someone close to him said to him on a long-distance telephone call: “You are a parenthesis.”
Besides the characterization and writing, the director’s other achievement is the sympathetic portrayal of the impact of the recession on ordinary Americans—he gets it down to the basic human level: For example, what will a man in his 50s tell his two daughters when his job is gone?
Up in the Air is a small, bittersweet film, well worth your 300 bucks at the multiplex. George Clooney, more so.
Up in the Air released intheatres on Friday.