Up In The Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner
adapted from the novel by Walter Kim
The third feature film from Jason Reitman, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner, as an adaptation of the novel by Walter Kim, is a continuation of his string of blackly funny satires on American values and mores in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century. Thank You for Smoking, his first feature, explored the out of control world of corporate and political spin-doctoring and media manipulation. His second, Juno, was a rye and original take on teenage pregnancy and the American family.
While Up in the Air explores some of the same confusions and issues, it makes the political much more personal by unveiling the quiet desperation that may lie at the heart of the most "successful" modern life. It's a story of disillusionment that may come too late to be useful, but still holds out a certain degree of hope; a sort of updated Death of a Salesman, with less melodrama and much more humor.
At the center is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate hatchet-man-for-hire whose company does the dirty-work corporate executives fear: breaking the news to employees that they are being let go and controlling their reactions. The film opens with a series of painful excerpts from such interviews - heartbreakingly relevant in these troubled times.
But Bingham is good at his job - the best. He's manipulative, charming, well-rehearsed and in control, devoid of real compassion or empathy for his victims, focused on his own rate of "success." He's divorced himself from the human dimensions and ramifications of what he does for a living and views it as a kind of lucrative game.
He enjoys his status as an airport "VIP," and his secret ambition is to amass 10 Million frequent-flier miles. Hotel clerks, his colleagues, airport employees and executives at the companies for which he works treat him with the business-class version of respect. He allows himself to pretend that being admitted to the VIP lounge at the airport makes him important, and that being greeted by name by hotel concierges (however scripted their exchanges), confirms him as a person of consequence. He's content to live in the illusion of that self-definition until, unavoidably, he's confronted by the fact that his world is changing around him.
The change manifests in the form of a new hire at his company. Natalie Keener (Anna Hendrick) is a marketing whiz-kid, fresh out of graduate school with a shiny new MBA. She seeks to eliminate the uncertainty and expense introduced into the company's work by the presence of the human element. She presents a plan to do the company's work on-line, via computer-conferencing, eliminating the need for travel costs and the potentially emotionally uncomfortable face-to-face confrontation with people who often feel their lives are being ruined.
Suddenly, Bingham finds himself arguing for the "human touch" in work he has learned to do with only the outward appearance of sympathy. Natalie's approach presents a sort of reductio-ad-absurdum of his own life's work that throws it all into high relief, and he's forced to confront the underlying layers of misery, suffering and meaninglessness he's been so good at avoiding.
In the midst of this crisis of the spirit (not unlike Willy Loman's) Bingham meets his female counterpart. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is an experienced and sophisticated business traveler and their relationship is initiated in comparing notes on playing the system to make the most of various services and amenities available to corporate gypsies like themselves. They enter into a casusal, commitment-free sexual relationship, pleasurable and playful, to pass the time between planes.
But in light of the new feelings and longings that are being awakened in the course of his reassessment of his life, Bingham finds a new aspect creeping in to this liaison. The contrast between his and Alex's studiously nonchalant approach to their relationship and the tension he observes in Natalie's ambivalence over the choice she has made to pursue her career and sideline relationship is another factor that underscores the trade-offs he has made to be where he is.
It's a universal human dilemma: the fact that the only true exercise of freedom lies in surrendering it, since the minute we commit to one free choice, by that commitment we limit our freedom to pursue all divergent and contradictory choices. In time, it catches up with all of us and the resonant appeal we imagine on the road not taken is something with which we all have to deal. To do so, we have to evaluate the choices we have made,in terms of our own moral code and world-view.
The emptiness Willy Loman discovers at the heart of his very American aspirations leads him to despair and suicide, but Ryan Bingham is much luckier. Although the paradigm shift in his way of looking at his life is certainly profound and disturbing to him, the fact that he can reclaim his life - reflected in the choice Natalie finally makes - is part of the film's wistful final affirmation.
Reitman's and Turner's script is very well-crafted. It takes full advantage of Clooney's ability to convey the wry and ironic without becoming arch. It exposes the inconsistencies and self-delusional conceits of Bingham's world subtly and avoids the ham-handedness into which self-righteous satire can descend. Bingham is presented neither as hero, anti-hero nor villain, but rather, as an ordinary modern man, confused and misled by the conflicting demands of multiple inner and outer realities.
The female characters are also well-drawn. Alex Goran is a woman in a man's world, playing at adopting the prevalent male ethos of that world, and doing it very well- perhaps a little too well. Natalie Keener is smart, sensitive and perceptive, if a bit naive - but she learns quickly and seems unlikely to fall into the trap Bingham has constructed for himself. The dialogue is snappy and intelligent, without glibness or mannerism. The screenwriter's have caught the short-hand codes of what passes for communication in the age of Twitter with wonderful satiric effect.
As director, Reitman has focused closely and cleanly on the central dynamic, making Bingham's predicament always the center of the story and not allowing any of the sub-plots to distract. We may wonder about Natalie's boyfriend or Alex's life off the road, but - without short-changing those questions - Reitman keeps us following the way those circumstances play out in Bingham's life.
He does a fine job with his actors. Clooney is masterful here - he may be the most versatile and talented American actor of his generation. His trademark charm is evident - a legitimate part of the character - but so too is the limitation that reliance on that easy charm imposes on the Bingham. His ability to mine a moment without milking it, for both comic and poignant effect has never been allowed more scope. There's a moment when overhears Natalie refer to him as "old," and he checks his reflection in a nearby mirror, that illuminates incipient disintegration of his personality with both humor and pathos.
Vera Farmiga is spot on as Alex. She's certainly attractive and savvy enough to hold her own with Bingham. Her smart-aleck, cool road-persona is every inch a match for his. When we learn more about her, it comes as a surprise, but not a shock. The way Farmiga has embodied her gives us every reason to understand and accept the contradiction in the character.
Anna Kendrick gets Natalie just right as well. She's bright and motivated, starting her quest for what she's been convinced is "the good life" American-style. There's a combination of hero-worship and iconoclastic ambition in her relationship to her new job, and to Bingham, that by its initial acceptance and gradual disturbance lends energy to his own struggle.
Supporting players, including excellent talents like Jason Bateman and JK Simmons, Sam Elliot and Zach Galifianakis are used sparingly - in keeping with Reitman's admirably disciplined focus - but very effectively. By surrounding his principals with such strong support, Reitman creates a history and context for them that brings their world more authentically to life.
The camera-work is fine. This is not a "beauty-shot" film, but the use of long lenses and perspectives to homogenize and compress the "geography of nowhere" which is the round of hotels, airports, terminals and corporate offices that circumscribe Bingham's world underscores the almost surreal feel of these "non-places" of temporary habitation. Likewise, the "talking-head" framing of the "termination interviews" that bracket the story itself underline such "exchanges" as both a cliché of modern business ("to assure quality assurance, this interview is being recorded") and a penetrating and unflinching look into the emotional dissociation, the terror and casual cruelty, of the culture such business practices have spawned.
Production values are fine, with sets and settings that are completely believable and evocative of the various situations in which Bingham finds himself. The music, while not as large a part of the film as it is for some filmmakers, is at least never obtrusive nor manipulative.
This is a very well-made film: well-written, well-acted and well-produced. Coming on top of his last two successes, it would seem to presage a provocative and engaging career for Jason Reitman, one which I, for one, will watch with excitement and interest.
That's my take on it. What's yours?