Hear that? That was lightning striking twice. Or, in other words, the career so far of Jason Reitman.
Since breaking into the public consciousness with 2006’s Thank You For Smoking, and then moving into 2007’s Oscar darling Juno, Reitman has had a perfect record for producing high quality films.
With this year’s Up in the Air, Reitman has done the impossible. He’s made lightning strike thrice.
Like Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air is at it’s core a story about a charismatic man who does a terrible job terribly well. But unlike Nick Naylor, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham isn’t a man who defends the Tobacco Industry, his line of business is quite different. Ryan is hired by companies to let employees go, and in this economic climate, business is very good.
Bingham is a master of efficiency. Spending 322 days on the road, he flies from city to city, laying off dozens of workers from dozens of companies. But he has it down pat. You aren’t fired, you’re being let go. It’s not the end of the road, it’s the first step towards destiny. For every down he finds the up, and by God, you find that your life is better without this lousy job. ‘Cause who needs it…and who needs anything really? Ryan certainly doesn’t.
Living in hotel rooms, airports and out of suitcases, the only thing Ryan has tying him down is a small apartment near his office in Omaha, Nebraska. But that’s just for show. His life truly is the road. A master of frequent flyer and regular customer programs, he’s on his way to 10 Million Airline Miles. And it’s never been easier.
Until he slows down.
For all of his life, to paraphrase a Roots lyric, Ryan Bingham has been nose to the grindstone. He doesn’t need to belong, because he simply is. Life is easier for him unencumbered. No baggage. Little luggage. Family? Sure, they exist, but he pays them little mind. He moves forward and moves on. His life is all about solving the inefficiencies at companies, so his life has to remain a well oiled machine.
But it’s once two women enter his life, that, to finish the afformentioned lyric, his head goes into the stars.
The first is a fellow loner – an older, wiser, sexually forward woman named Alex, played wonderfully by Vera Farmiga. She lives her life just as Ryan does. A member of exclusive clubs, with no baggage, head on straight, life moving forward. The other, Natalie (the breakout performance of Anna Kendrick) intends to change his world entirely. A 23 year old hot-shot college student, she moves to make Ryan’s job more efficient. Why fly to each company when you can handle these firings by teleconferencing? What’s the purpose of the money and manpower in the air, when it all can be done from a centralized location? What does the human touch have to do with any of it?
That last is a question that Ryan himself uses to build barriers in his life, but he soon discovers may be the one thing in life he’s great at. In a last ditch effort to keep his life the way he likes it, Ryan takes Natalie on the road, to show her the ropes…and that’s where our story truly takes flight, to pardon the pun.
To explain the rest would be to spoil the film, but we fast learn what Ryan is truly made of…as does he.
As Ryan Bingham, George Clooney wears his trademark charisma and candor as a mask, to hide the true man beneath it all, and honestly, it’s the best role he’s ever played. Subverting his trademark style, Clooney digs deep, and while he has no true moment of catharsis on film (my one gripe toward the film) you feel the shifts in his life. And, just as importantly, you see how and why he’s so god damn good at his job.
And that brings me to the unsung performers of this film. While Kendrick, Farmiga and Clooney might be looking at Golden Globe and possible Oscar noms, the real life unemployed bring this film’s emotional core to the frontline. While putting together the film, Reitman did a casting call for actual unemployed people of all ages, races and genders, and not only asked them how they feel post firing, but did a mock firing with them, to get true responses out of them. These people were only told that it was for a film on “unemployment”, and it is their so called performances that bring an amazing realness to the difficulty of the job that Ryan Bingham has. These sequences are peppered with performances by great character actors like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galfinakis, who add their unique abilities to some of the most memorable firing sequences.
Of course, I’d be terrible to overlook the solid directing of Jason Reitman. He’s a man who’s flown many flights in his time, and obviously loves it as much as his lead character does, and it shows. The opening sequences are shot with an amazing fluidity, a funky rhythm which almost makes the art of checking in for your flight…sexy, as bizarre as it is to say. But as the film moves on, he opens up the shots, lets you breathe in the world…just as Ryan Bingham chooses to do the same.
Up in the Air pushes the importance of real, live interactions and connections in your life, and honestly, I can’t think of a better movie this Christmas for you to see with a loved one, based on that alone. Truly one of the year’s best films, it comes with my whole hearted recommendation. Bravo, Jason. You’re 3 for 3…and this may just be your best film yet.