I should hate Ryan Bingham. I got laid off six months ago; he's a professional layer-offer. I'm a 30something never-married woman; he's the spokesmodel for commitment-phobic men. I should hate every inch of his well-coifed, frequent-flying, fictional self.
But I don't.
Because he's not just Ryan Bingham, he's George Clooney at his dramedy best. And he's powered by Jason Reitman, who blends snark and emotion (and yes, a bit of sleaze) with a deft touch. And Ryan's prevented from being a one-dimensional stereotype with witty dialogue, understated acting, and a couple of interesting plot twists.
We first meet Ryan in his nirvana: an airport. Not only does he fire people, he flies all across the country to be the stranger swinging the unemployment axe. While the newly unemployed sitting across the table from him seethe and cry and ask gut-wrenching questions about their future, Ryan sits there coolly—like the wine glass on those motion-neutralizing mattress commercials. Someone's jumping up and down on the other side of the queen-size and it's just sitting there all still and sophisticated. That's Ryan in the face of these emotional displays.
When he's not doing the dirty work of wussy bosses, Ryan's happily racking up frequent-flyer miles and elite membership status with various hotels and rental car agencies. And occasionally doing some motivational speaking at business conferences, asking the nameless masses in generic hotel conference rooms, "How much does your life weigh?" and "What's in your backback?" Then he encourages attendees to winnow out all the unnecessary possessions and personal relationships that are just weighing them down.
Ryan's carefully crafted world of "making limbo tolerable" for the people he fires—and living like it's not just tolerable but perfection—is thrown off balance by two women. Alex (Vera Farmiga) is a fellow frequent-flying, elite-status junkie. And though at first Ryan and Alex share merely a love of platinum cards and adventurous, casual sex, Ryan reluctantly starts to do something new: feel. He begins to have feelings for this woman who's like a female version of himself.
Then there's Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an efficiency expert who's caught the ear of Ryan's boss by suggesting the company cut their considerable travel costs by firing people via video conference call. At the prospect of being grounded indefinitely, Ryan protests to his heartless boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), claiming this new college grad doesn't even know the industry she's trying to revolutionize. So Craig sends her on the road with Ryan, charging him with the task of familiarizing her.
Some hilarious dialogue takes place between Ryan and these two women: Ryan and Alex comparing elite status cards and trash-talking about their various frequent-traveler memberships. Ryan teaching Natalie how to navigate airport security. And my hands-down favorite: Alex and Natalie comparing notes about what a 20something woman wants in a man and what a 30/40something woman wants in a man. All these conversations are wickedly insightful.
This humor is punctuated by the reactions of those getting laid off. As one who's been there not too long ago, I found these scenes painfully (and sometimes amusingly) authentic. I wasn't surprised when I read later that the filmmakers found real people in St. Louis and Detroit who'd been laid off and asked them to react on camera as they had when they were let go—or how they wish they'd responded. I appreciate that they kind of honored the realities of so many of us by making these scenes ring true.
The performances by the professional actors are just as powerful. It's nice to see George Clooney getting beyond his recent quirky (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Burn After Reading) and cheeky (Leatherheads, Ocean's Thirteen) roles to tackle something a bit more realistic and vulnerable. At times he's a suave Don Draper, at others he's a lost and lonely five-year-old boy. And the transitions never seem jarring. It's an impressive and enjoyable performance.
Kendrick is a delight as the tightly wound efficiency expert Natalie. She attacks her keyboard (or as she calls it, "types with purpose") and tromps around in her navy suit and matching pumps with so much nervous energy it practically emanates from the screen. Watching her smugly challenge Ryan's lifestyle while she slowly unravels herself is good entertainment. And just when you think Farmiga's Alex is simply a selfish male chauvinist in a skirt, she surprises you with believable tenderness or vulnerability.
And while I could have done without Ryan and Alex's sexting and her gratuitous nudity as they go at each other not even 24 hours after their "nice to meet you's," I did appreciate that the film also showed the consequences of these physical and emotional entanglements. Yes, there's some glorifying of this hedonistic behavior, but there's also some revelation of how shallow and feeble a foundation this creates for a relationship. Still, I would have enjoyed the film more without these scenes.
I'd put Up in the Air in the relatively new genre of comedy that's snarky, a bit vulgar, full of hilariously insightful dialogue, and yet packing a surprising amount of emotion. Think Juno and Little Miss Sunshine on the big screen, The Office and Scrubs on the small. The bite makes this genre off-putting for some viewers, but the same quality is a draw to many.
What I appreciate about this genre is that there are rarely tidy endings (there's not one in Up in the Air), but there's most definitely growth. We don't see the main characters revolutionize their lives, but we do see them grow—as they see themselves more clearly, wrestle with their decisions, experience aha moments, change direction a bit. They're a little bit better than when we first meet them, or they will be soon.
And that's certainly true of Ryan Bingham. He's still up in the air by the end of the film, but he's got a better sense of direction. And watching that subtle yet significant shift is a treat.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Why do you think Ryan has rid his life of any personal relationships? Why does he live and promote an "empty-backpack" lifestyle?
- Why do you think Ryan's main goal is to reach the million-mile mark with the airline? Why is this so important to him?
- How does Alex impact/change Ryan? How does Natalie impact/change him?
- Ryan says he tries to "make limbo tolerable" for those he has to let go. Do you think he really does that? Does he—or anyone else—practice real compassion in the firing scenes?
- What impact does his sister's wedding weekend have on Ryan?
- What do you think Ryan's life would look like five years after the end of this film?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Up in the Air is rated R for language and some sexual content. Take that sexual content warning seriously. We see Vera Farmiga naked (mostly from the side and behind) as she sleeps with George Clooney's character very soon after they meet. Sex is a main component of their relationship, and when they can't be together doing it, they send each other suggestive texts about masturbating. SPOILER ALERT: Alex turns out to be married all along, so all these activities are even more unbiblical. Besides the occasional foul language, we also see Natalie get drunk at a work party and then sleep with a stranger who picked her up there.
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