I think that one day in the not too distant future, people won’t be able to think of Juno without gritting their teeth at its incredibly pretentious dialogue, its incredibly pretentious soundtrack, and its incredibly pretentious sense of self-satisfaction. Up in the Air, on the other hand, will be remembered as one of the best films Jason Reitman ever made. So suck on that, Phomboneus Jones.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who’s job it is to fly around the country and lay people off for corporations who for one reason or another won’t do it themselves. Understandably, most of the people he comes in contact with hate him, and after many years he’s turned being detached into a science. When young hotshot Natalie Keener comes up with a way to do Ryan’s job remotely, by video, he takes her with him, across the country, to see firsthand exactly what it is he does and the effect it has on people.
I think one thing that’s so appealing about the movie is that we’ve all imagined ourselves in Clooney’s shoes. He’s on the road for hundreds of days out of the year. When he’s not firing people, he’s out giving speeches on how people should work to rid themselves of their possessions. Physical possessions, yes, but also the relationships with those around them. I’m sure we’ve all been through that spot when we feel so bogged down with other people’s crap that we imagine what it would be like to just cut everyone off and leave, go somewhere. To a small extent, we’re living vicariously through the character.
This is the type of role Clooney was made for. The Danny Ocean type who knows his business, gets in, gets things done, and gets out. Every now and then he meets Vera Farmiga, recharges his batteries, and it’s off to the next job. We’ve seen Clooney play over the top. It worked great in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou? It worked less great in Burn After Reading and The Men Who Stare at Goats, but it still worked. Although not in the same way these sorts of roles have worked for him, and have made him such a great actor. Clooney spends most of the movie paired up with Anna Kendrick, so it’s nice to see the contrast between the newcomer and the old pro. The movie features other great talent like Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, and Danny McBride, but they seem so underutilized here that just about all you get from them is a, “Oh, look. Him.”
The main theme examined in Up in the Air is pretty serious. The effects of cutting yourself off emotionally from those around you. But still, the humor Reitman was able to find in the middle of all this was spot on. With the exception of Zombieland — which is a different kind of comedy — Up in the Air is the funniest movie I’ve seen all year. A lot of this is thanks to Kendrick, who’s young cockiness quickly wears away once Clooney shows her the realities of her job.
Reitman has said that Up in the Air is the most mature thing he’s ever written, and I can’t say I disagree with him. He takes us to a place we’ve all thought about going before, casting off the relationships we have with those around us, and shows us how incapable we all are of functioning as people without them. We have to open ourselves up, even though it leaves us open to taking people’s crap (Listen to the bells, Vera Farmiga fans! They toll for thee!). Poignant and hilarious, Up in the Air easily ranks as one of the year’s best.