Adapted from the novel of the same name by Walter Kim that came out back in 2001, Up in the Air is the one of my favorite features from Jason Reitman who has made a name for himself among film fans with Thank You For Smoking and Juno. With the leading roles having been cast with George Clooney and then rising star among the younger filmgoers in Anna Kendrick due to a range of roles, the film is easily set to try and appeal to both audiences. Up in the Air is the kind of film that makes the attempt to bring in the younger audience but will likely not go over well because the actual content here likely won’t appeal to them.
The premise is quite simple as we’re introduced to Ryan Bingham who works for CTC, a company that sends in people like him to companies that are too afraid to fire their own personnel. These guys aren’t efficiency experts but rather they’re there to do the dirty work, take the verbal abuse and to try and paint the firings as a golden opportunity to move forward instead of viewing it all as a negative. Ryan lives his life traveling as he spends close to two hundred and seventy five days away from his small one-room apartment near the corporate headquarters in Omaha. The differences between his home life and his travel life are stark as the apartment is really very utilitarian in comparison to the flash and style he sees in all the places he goes, with his numerous frequent flyer miles, gold card membership privileges and other perks built up from so much travel.
Ryan loves this life but it’s about to hit a real snag when the company hires a perky twenty-three year old named Natalie Keener. In a company like this, the bulk of expenses comes from travel so she’s looking at how to do it with modern technology and streamlining things, which means doing virtual firings that will cause the current team to be grounded. With a proposed drop of eighty-five percent, it’s easy to see why the company is pursuing it. But for people like Ryan, it’s the end of their way of life. Before Ryan can really agree to any of this, he finds himself being teamed up with Natalie so he can show her the ropes of the real world of this job so she can understand what it is that the people on the receiving end go through. There’s a world of difference between what you do when firing someone in person and through web cameras on monitors.
Up in the Air explores a couple of interesting areas over the course of its nearly two-hour run. The technology side itself is certainly intriguing as you can easily imagine that there are companies that do this for a variety of reasons, no matter how cold it is for a situation that is so deeply personal for those on the receiving end. The way lives are changing in that we do so much through the Internet now, socializing, falling in love and interacting for business, it’s a natural progression for this kind of work to end up here as well. But it’s the kind of work that strikes me as one of those last frontier types where it’s a sign that society is moving firmly into a new realm, akin to the reboot of Superman in the 80’s where Krypton become a cold world where people never see each other or the threeboot of Legion of Super-Heroes where much the same was done.
While the technology is the driving force that helps to get Natalie out on the road to experience things, it’s not the real focus of the film. Prior to going back to the home office, Ryan meets a woman very similar to him named Alex. The two have a very fun scene where they compare their various rewards cards and membership cards and realize they have a lot in common in this area and that they’re quite compatible physically as well. There’s a very endearing modern moment where they start to compare their schedules by booting up their laptops together and figuring it all out. They meet each other multiple times over the film, including a trip to Ryan’s younger sisters wedding, and you can see that Ryan is definitely becoming more interested in her and possibly moving past his way of life where there isn’t anything that’s weighing him down.
And it’s in there that the central idea of the film comes out. Much of what Ryan teaches Natalie through the process of helping people in their being let go is that this is an opportunity for them to open that next door. That there’s only one ending in life and everything else is just a series of new beginnings. This applies heavily to the work aspect of the film as Ryan works them through their rage, acceptance and frustration over what he’s putting them through, but it also gets brought into the relationship side as well. Ryan’s relationship with Alex is one where you very easily root for them to get together through the challenges of it all. Both Clooney and Vera Farmiga have great chemistry together and watching their relationship blossom over the course of the film is a real highlight. The little nods are wonderful, from the playful texting to the way they are when they get together at various hotels. There’s a good comfort between them but also a good deal of intensity as well.
Up in the Air is the kind of movie that will really depend on where you are in your life as to what you’ll take away from it. It doesn’t just wash over you with action or with a drama that doesn’t connect personally. There’s something to take away from Natalie’s relationship where she followed a guy to Omaha after having the whole world at her feet. You can appreciate Ryan’s way of life in that there’s a certain order and prestige to it but it’s not truly portrayed as a negative. It’s a life that’s very much right for him, but one he’s willing to move beyond if the right person actually does show up. It’s a new beginning for him and one that is completely appealing. It’s a reminder that even in our personal lives, there’s always a renewal and rebirth, but we have to be open to accepting it and embracing it. It may not be what we think it is and it may not go as we hope, but like everything else, it helps us continue down that road.
This is definitely a difficult movie in many places simply because of the subject matter of the firings as it takes heavily from then present-day economic realities. A company like CTC is poised to take advantage of it, but the hardships that they deal in and try to be unaffected by are profound. You can’t help but feel impacted by it, which in turn makes you feel far more for Ryan and Natalie as they perform their task. I left this movie with a lot in my head, knowing that I enjoyed it immensely but that it’s the kind of movie that really does leave a mark. It makes me want to take some of these chances, to feel like I’m moving and not stationary.