Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman)
In the classic Hollywood peak period of roughly 1932 to ’41, the king of the mountain was MGM, known for sparing no expense in their opulent but curiously sterile costume epics; meanwhile, Warner Bros. was enjoying nearly as much success if less fanfare for capturing the spirit of the times during the Great Depression. Their movies were gritty, dark, as down and dirty as you could get in the Hays Code era, and frequently dealt with the underbelly of a broken nation: gangsters and molls, badass antiheroes and broken people. But what mattered was that in films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Maltese Falcon, Warners didn’t just offer escapism to the populace, they said something about the world of that time. Even if their films were rarely explicitly about the strife of the ’30s, they seldom hid it and frequently commented on it. That background gave the people seeing those movies an analogy to their own lives. If Jason Reitman’s third film were made in the 1930s, it would probably have been a Warner Bros. project. On paper it’s a more or less conventional romantic comedy with a game-changing streak of dark melancholy and greater openness to casual and unconventional relationships than is typical for mainstream Hollywood, but by giving it the uncompromising background of a world full of unemployment, layoffs, and downsizing, it subtly but unmistakably becomes a political film. That its comments about the sickening evolution of employment and self-worth in the post-Bush U.S. are merely peripheral serves to add to their power.
No clearer precedent for Up in the Air exists than the work of Billy Wilder, in particular The Apartment. Just as relatively familiar a story, even with far more uplifting a conclusion, but swirling around the two lead characters was a scathing attack on both corporate culture and the casual, cutthroat sexism of well-to-do macho men. But even Wilder couldn’t affix himself so intimately with the things that bothered him as Reitman does here. In several cities where parts of the film were shot, he placed ads asking for people who’d recently lost their jobs, not actors, to come to the set and reenact either the moment they were fired or the way they wished their firing had played out — and tell the story of how their lives had changed since that crucial turning point. The scenes they filmed are scattered around the movie — frighteningly real, heartbreaking, raw. The injection of something so haunting into a mainstream movie starring George Clooney is a risky stroke that’d be worth praising even if the rest of the film were terrible. That, luckily, is hardly the case.
The story is a deconstruction and update of Walter Kim’s pre-9/11 novel; a corporate downsizer named Ryan Bingham (Clooney, the best he’s ever been) is besieged by a distant extended family from whom he’s increasingly estranged and a tech-minded new coworker, Natalie, who wants to consolidate and upgrade the process of firing people, effectively ending Bingham’s constant blissful state of travel and high-class lounging in American Airlines VIP areas, and circumventing his private goal to reach ten million frequent flier miles. He’s matched in such eccentric, privileged ambitions by his casual sex partner Alex (Vera Farmiga, best known before this for The Departed). As the younger Natalie (Anna Kendrick) copes with the reality of laying off employees face to face and witnessing their distress, she and Ryan spar over his lifestyle choices — especially after she’s suddenly dumped by the boyfriend for whom she moved to Nebraska. That said, spending time with Alex seems to give Ryan a heretofore unrecognized appreciation for familial connections, so he asks her to accompany him to his younger sister Julie’s wedding, where the two of them grow closer as he makes awkward attempts to fill in some of the space between himself and his siblings. Ryan seems to feel that Alex may be the person who will ground him at last — and appropriately enough, it’s just then that the entire team of downsizers is grounded as well, and Ryan impulsively flies to Alex’s home in Chicago — only to discover that she lives there with her husband and children. Left adrift, Ryan returns to his former life with new melancholic scars.
In theory, Up in the Air may come across as a classicist Hays Code movie with its secondary characters’ vocal resentment of Ryan’s bachelor jetsetting. But looked upon in greater detail, it’s a sympathetic portrait of a man who has found happiness, just happiness that unfortunately sometimes bumps up against the lives of others uncomfortably; the film doesn’t demonize him or thoroughly celebrate him, which is as it should be, nor does it deny that — even as his life is impacted by a shade of darkness and sadness at the end of the film — he is ultimately a fulfilled man. There’s a superb scene that epitomizes this ambiguity, and will be traumatically familiar to anyone who spends a great deal more time away from blood relatives than they probably should. The night prior to the wedding, Ryan believes he’s performing a selfless act by offering to take Julie (the great Melanie Lynskey) down the altar — but succeeds only in adding an intensely awkward weight to the moment when she tells him the role is already filled. The chilly strangeness of his distance from her life is almost physically manifested. Still, his integrity is plain enough; we’re made aware that the right person and the right circumstances could change his mind, as they could anyone’s, and that he can grudgingly acknowledge that some moments are best lived with another. Beyond that, there is only a problem if there is a solution, as he states early on.
The cleverly lopsided structure of the film is made seamless by two simple but crucial factors: first is the weight and believability of the characters Reitman and his cast have crafted. Ryan and Alex are both brought to life with impeccable shading and intelligence, neither running across the shallow edge of two-dimensional quirk that sometimes marred Reitman’s prior movie Juno. Ryan’s confidence and doubt are just measured enough to make sense without becoming didactic or smug; the simultaneous sadness and gleeful abandon inherent to the world he occupies is convincingly bittersweet. Part of the reason Alex’s relationship to him works, as much as Alex herself as a character, is that she is intimately familiar and comprehending of the virtues and problems of the endless-airport existence. Unlike Catherine Zeta-Jones’ stewardess character in the thematically similar comedy The Terminal, Alex doesn’t despair at the lack of tenacity in the relationships she builds. It’s part of the gig, the two of them are used to it, and they handle it well, at least until Ryan temporarily cracks. That sense of well-worn maturity gives them a chance to serve in a sort of surrogate parentage to Natalie when she loses her boyfriend, but rather than looking upon her as a potential clone, they simply advise her of the measured hedonism that can restore some level of mental health to her life — even if the movie subsequently cops to the understandable consensus that no normal person could fire people for a living, least of all someone as naive and earnest as Natalie.
That naivete sometimes comes across as strained in a movie with few such weaknesses. Though Anna Kendrick gives Natalie an awful lot of energy, there’s something about her that smacks mildly of the pedantic; particularly when she begins lecturing Ryan about his serial nonmonogamy, she seems to be a moralistic mouthpiece. It doesn’t seem to make sense that someone who could exhibit such enthusiasm early on for twisting the knife into the soon-to-be employed could possess such limited ideas about romantic relationships, specifically in regard to what women are supposed to universally want. Then again, we say a lot of stupid things when someone’s just broken up with us, so maybe these false notes are forgivable. And although she’s less interesting than the two leads, Natalie really provides the crux of the story by giving Ryan a chance to prove himself a human being.
The second handy justification Up in the Air provides for its unusually (for a romcom) episodic story is the expert sense of visual style throughout, which is leaps and bounds above Juno. The direction and photography, apart from being technically top-notch, give the movie an edge because they are so subjective, attuned specifically to the evolution in Ryan’s attitudes through the film. The first act is all arid tones, cold machinery, empty white spaces, the camera usually distant and still and geometrically aligned. There’s time to notice pain, like that of Ryan’s once-seduced neighbor who no longer can hold his attention, but none to focus on it. As Alex’s importance to Ryan grows, we see her as he does; her smiles linger and she becomes a lively contrast. The wedding scene is a tremendously well-achieved exercise in yearning; it bursts through with handheld shots, emotional cutting and familial warmth — an evocation of Ryan’s regrets about his part in his family’s life and the way he’s growing to think of Alex as a new family, in either sense an injection of something heretofore unknown in his life and in the movie itself. Nothing’s the same afterward, for better or worse.
As good as the supporting players are, it’s difficult to pay them the attention they likely deserve in a film with two such bravura lead performances. Clooney takes full advantage of his own slick and smarmy persona, so frequently compared to Cary Grant but more accurately in line with Clark Gable; Clooney’s skills don’t typically seem to be in a league with either of those legends, even when he stretches himself beyond the old ER head-wagging in something like O Brother, Where Art Thou? or with his astoundingly thorough rendering of the title character in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Up in the Air gives him an opportunity to turn these conventions upside down. He takes the Yuppie showboating to its unapologetic, logical conclusion, playing a career man whose career will immediately turn him against the audience, but he’s just as committed to the heavy-hearted emotions the final act entails. Clooney gets the opportunity to play that closing darkness in a methodically precise moment of visual heartbreak (see here) and, perhaps more impressively, in an Eisensteinian bit of acting minimalism when Alex opens the door at the climax. His face reveals nothing out of context, but everything within the film.
That scene is just as throttling on Vera Farmiga’s end; her facial expression alone as she opens the door and recognizes Clooney, encapsulating the mix of emotions at the appearance of someone so cherished and someone so completely in the wrong place. The contrast of his stunned, sad recognition and her shock and mortification render this the most memorable, startling scene of the film.
Ryan has no place shouting at the world over his disappointment, having made his living disappointing so many people he didn’t even know, so he doesn’t. That’s in contrast to what virtually any other romantic comedy hero would’ve done; there is no grand turnaround, no moment of great change or justice. Alex says they can still see one another just like before. Ryan does a bit of struggling to feel something again by writing a nice letter of recommendation for Natalie, now far off in California after being crushed when one of the women she fired killed herself, and dispensing frequent flier miles to his sister after gaining that ten millionth he used to want so badly. The achievement now seems so hollow.
The desperation and dislocation surrounding Ryan and the other characters by the finale draws a clear line to America as of the turn of the decade. Up in the Air captures not just the economy but the mood of its time as well as almost any American movie since 9/11. It seems hard to imagine that a more prosperous age could have produced it. It’s tempting to think of this in two ways: as an acidic Wilder-like antidote to the Clinton-era grinning slickness of Jerry Maguire, and as the first movie to properly speak about the U.S. in the economic downturn. By rendering it as the backdrop in the story of rejection in the life of a secure man whose job is to ruin other people, it says more than any documentary ever could.