Click here to listen to the interview with director Jason Reitman (16:55)
In UP IN THE AIR, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has it all figured out. A business traveler with only 42 days at what he euphemistically calls home in Omaha, his is an uncomplicated life without the messiness that genuine human interaction entails. He glides through it the way he glides through airports, basking in the ersatz warmth of the carefully scripted hospitality spiel from clerks whose smiles of welcome are as impersonal as they are shiny. His job, ironically, is also impersonal, and yet involves one of the most personal things than can happen to an average human being. Ryan fires people for employers who dont want to sully their own hands by doing the deed. With a persona that strikes the perfect balance between compassionate and detached, he guides the newly unemployed through the worst day of their lives, and does it with a success that bespeaks his professionalism in getting said newly unemployed out of the workplace efficiently, but also out of the workplace with a modicum of dignity, and maybe even a spark of hope. Its the personal touch from someone by whom they will not only never see again, but by whom they also wont be remembered 10 minutes later. There is something very right about it; and something very wrong about a culture that requires his services.
Thing are about to change for Ryan and radically. His sister insists on his being a part of their younger sisters wedding. His new on-the-road playmate, Alex (Vera Farmiga), is his match in every way, from elite travel membership cards to sex with no strings, and might have him re-thinking his philosophy of non-involvement. Most radical, though, the new hire at his company, 23-year-old Natalie (Anna Kendrick), has come up with a plan to slash the cost of doing business by having Ryan and his colleagues fire people over the internet using TI lines and computer screens.
Based on the book of the same name by Walter Kirn, and directed by Jason Reitman from a script he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner, the film quickly becomes a cautionary tale about the illusions people construct for themselves, from a job that is secure, to a personal life that is similarly rock solid. For Ryan, its the empty backpack philosophy that he both lives and promotes moonlighting as a motivational speaker, and for Natalie, its finding out that her carefully mapped out plans, intricate flow charts and all, might not have legs in the real world. Its a bitter lesson that being successful has many definitions, some of which can bite you on the butt when you least expect it. In the films more piquant and telling irony in a film rife with them, Ryan opines in his motivational talk about empty backpacks that to only way to live is to keep moving, oblivious to the fact that while he has traveled millions of miles in pursuit of 10 million frequent-flier miles and the perks that come with its, he has actually gotten nowhere. When Natalie accuses him of being an emotional 12-years-old, she has summed up his stagnation with a vicious precision.
Clooney makes the film work. Hes got the charisma and the depth to make Ryans faux earnestness real enough for those he is firing, and to then show the all but imperceptible chinks in his emotional armor as they start to give way in his personal life. Hes got the charm to make Ryans superficiality irresistible even while acknowledging the hollowness of it, and palatable when hes being less than appealing. Reitman sets it up perfectly. When the audience gets its first glimpse of Ryans studio apartment, showing more impersonality than any of the suites hes seen occupying before, there is an unexpected and genuine shock of pity for a guy whose life is as empty as that apartment, especially because he hasnt figured it out yet. At least not consciously. When he argues with his boss (Jason Bateman) that what he does requires the personal touch, not a computer screen, he is, without realizing it, not talking about the person being terminated. As the ladies in his life, Farmiga and Kendrick are perfection. Kendrick is all smarts and no savvy, but a bulldogs determination to be taken seriously. Farmiga smarty, savvy, and exuding the sensuality of intelligence and abandon in the right proportions. When Alexs feels the graphite finish on one of Ryans executive club cards and savors the weight of it in her hand, it is with all the rapture of another woman holding a diamond necklace for which she has been willing sell her soul.
Reitman has cast unemployed people in the roles of those who are suffering the same fate, and its worth sticking around through the credits to hear their take on what life has dealt them, and for what may be their new anthem, composed by an out-of-work musician who played it over the phone for Reitman and got the gig. In a film that explores the black humor in the dark ironies of contemporary life while never making light of them, it is the perfect counterpoint to people who are convinced that they have the answers, who looking askance and with a little pity at those who havent their enlightenment. Who havent figured out that trying to outsmart uncertainty is a fools errand. UP IN THE AIR is smart, sobering, and the perfect funhouse mirror of the zeitgeist.