E: Sometimes, we get a little complacent. We think our lives are zipping along perfectly, just as they should. We think we know it all.
And that is just when life punches us in the gut.
Ryan Bingham likes his life just the way it is. It’s smooth and practiced. No one can clickety clack their way through airport security like he can. He knows all the tricks. He knows what to wear and where to go. He has all the passkeys, all the codecards, all the frequent flyer miles and all the motel chain membership plans. His life is up in the air. He works for an Omaha, Nebraska firm (run by the similarly smooth-talking but less experiences Jason Bateman) that fires people. That’s right. If an exec is too chicken to downsize employees on his or her own, contact Bateman, and he’ll send in Ryan Bingham (or one of his compatriots) to do it instead. And so Ryan lives his life above it all, racking up miles (“I have a number in mind,” he says), lighting down for a terrible moment in stranger’s lives, smoothing it over with platitudes, and flying blissfully away from any mess. He has a patented patter used to calm panicky firees; they are to use this moment as an experience, as a conduit to greatness, as a chance to make of their lives what they’ve always wanted.
He’s not without sympathy, and he’s not a total shyster. He’s evolved a philosophy of non-connection, which he peddles as self-improvement. He gives motivational speeches as a side job, suggesting his listeners divest themselves of an imaginary backpack filled with possessions and emotional ties. It’s a scam on one level (in that he’s too slick for sincerity) but he’s made it his world. He doesn’t want different. He starts a sexy-cool affair with a like minded traveler, the confident, smooth Alex (Farmiga); their passion is at once white hot and utterly detached.
And then Natalie Keener (Kendrick) shows up as an ambitious new hire to revolutionize Bateman’s business. We can save 85% of our travel budget, she claims, by firing people over video conference. Bingham is horrified; not only does that take the true skill out of his job, but where would that leave him? At home in his sterile white apartment with no shot at reaching his magic miles number, no Alex, no keycards, no escape, no snap, no magic. Desperate to prove the importance of actual physical connection to his work, he drags Natalie out on the road with him, to learn the tricks of the trade first hand. (This is preposterous, frankly. If such a job exists – firing people – why ever would you pay someone to do it over the computer? Surely that doesn’t take sufficient heat off the coward in the front office?) In the end, they teach each other. What does Ryan learn from this threat to his world? Is it all smooth sailing from here? Is he content to live a life without entanglements? And if not, what then?
Up in the Air seems a lock for a Best Picture nomination; it should also pick up nods for screenplay (it won this category at the Globes) and director. Before Avatar exploded with box office records, Up in the Air was expected to battle The Hurt Locker for the big prize. That seems a unlikely outcome for this year’s most topical comedy, but perhaps not a complete impossibility. Clooney is expected to pick up a nomination (his third) for Best Actor, as are first timers Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. Clooney gets to play slick and heartbroken all in one film; it’s a peach of a role. It was made for him. It is a perfect fit. His win for Syriana has come too recently for a real shot at this prize; if he was going to make a run for it, it would have begun at the Globes. Mo’Nique has the Supporting Actress category sewn up, but the nomination itself will be a huge boost to Clooney’s supporting ladies. Farmiga you may recognize as everyone’s girlfriend in The Departed, and Kendrick as Jessica in the Twilight Saga. Both do excellent work here and seem assured of recognition; Farmiga has been teetering on the edge of it for years, first winning a LA Film Critics award for 2004’s Down to the Bone. (No, don’t worry, there’s no reason you should have heard of it.) Kendrick’s Natalie is a twitchy type-A putting a brave face over insecurities. She followed a boy to Omaha, only to have him dump her; firing people was never what she wanted to do for a living, and though she’s a go getter, she doesn’t have the stomach for the job. (I did find it implausible that she expected to have a couple of kids by the age of 23. She’d have had to get knocked up on graduation, practically. She seems pretty committed to work to want that right away, too. She’s an odd mixture of traditionalist, pragmatist, and romantic.) What Alex Goran is, and what she means to Ryan Bingham, is the movie’s unexpected heart. Will Ryan take the opportunity to make of his life what he never dreamed it could be?
Up in the Air has another unexpected surprise, filled with people who won’t win awards for the experience. Writer/director Jason Reitman interviewed dozens of ordinary American who’ve been downsized, and seamlessly weaves that footage into the film. Those are the people Ryan and Natalie fire. And their real experiences ground Up in the Air‘s wit and glamor with deep and truthful experience. This is their movie. And they ask us – who are you? Does what you do with your days define you? Do your possessions, your house, your car, your mortgage payments, your spouse, your children, your friends? Who do you say you are? And how does that change when your world slips out from under you?