Director Jason Reitman knows this situation. When Juno took the indie-film world by storm two years ago, the chatter was all about Diablo Cody’s quotable screenplay and Ellen Page’s breakout performance. But this Reitman guy knows what he’s doing behind a camera. Even when the script loses it’s footing in the third act, Up in the Air remains charming in a way that far too few contemporary films manage.
“Charming” certainly isn’t a way to describe the professional life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a hired-gun deliverer of bad news to companies’ laidoff employees. He spends most of his days traveling from city to city, and life-on-the-go seems to suit Ryan just fine—so fine, in fact, that he’s rocked by a proposal from his employer’s new go-getter hire, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), to save travel expenses by doing all their axing via video conferencing. In an attempt to show Natalie how it’s really done, Ryan takes her on the road at the same time that he’s firing up a long-distance fling with another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga).
Reitman and Sheldon Turner worked on the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel, and the script provides plenty of pizzazz, particularly the interplay between Ryan and Alex. Sexy on-screen banter has become a lost art, but Clooney and Farmiga go at it with the gusto of two people used to being quicker on the verbal draw than anyone else in the room. It becomes a giddy delight watching these two wary players circle each other, reveling in snappy one-liners and one-upmanship in their Mile High Club war stories.
Their scenes are so enjoyable it would take a knockout performance to steal the show—which is just what Kendrick provides as Natalie. She’s playing something of a stock comedy-drama role—the outwardly confident career woman who’s actually an emotional mess—but Kendrick gives even the most potentially cringe-worthy moments a spunky energy. It’s evidence of how good she is in Up in the Air that the Tony-nominated actress with the Broadway-belter pipes is convincing during a karaoke-bar scene as a bad singer.
The performances are so strong, and the socio-political context so hard to ignore, that Reitman’s direction is likely to lurk in the background of most discussions about the movie. But he finds an ideal rapid-fire editing rhythm to the early scenes establishing Ryan’s travel routines; he picks a perfect visual metaphor for his establishing shots of each new city, a plane’s-eye-view of anonymously similar landscapes. Reitman fills Up in the Air not just with memorable snippets of dialogue, but with great movie images like a disconsolate Natalie sitting in an office full of empty chairs representing the people she’s just let go.
It’s a shame that Up in the Air can’t finish as strongly as it begins, the road to Ryan’s redemption littered with too-obvious metaphors and only-in-movies moments. The character arc doesn’t exactly break new ground, a combination of Clooney’s own Michael Clayton and Reitman’s previous Thank You for Smoking in humanizing its slick corporate protagonist. Maybe it’s evident where Up in the Air is taking both Ryan and the audience, but a talented filmmaker knows how to make the journey to that destination enjoyable. And Reitman is so good at his job, we hardly even notice him doing it.
UP IN THE AIR
George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Directed by Jason Reitman