Friday, December 4, 2009
Movie review: Up in the Air
Puts us in the aisle seat next to a first class business traveler with plenty of perks. (Nice place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there.)
Regardless of how whimsical things appear in the movie's trailer, there's more to Jason Reitman's new movie Up in the Air than high-flying comedic hijinks. Lots more, in fact.
It's a deeply thoughtful film which, at its heart, provides a melancholy examination of the life of a lonely man who doesn't know how to connect with people. Or even whether he wants to. As the film begins, in fact, he's pretty sure that he doesn't.
George Clooney plays HR hitman-for-hire Ryan Bingham. Ryan doesn't kill people, he just breaks the bad news to them regarding their new employment status -- which is null and void. The idea is that some management teams are just too lily-livered (or otherwise ill-equipped) to tell their own employees that they have been laid off, and that's where Ryan comes in.
Ryan's so enamored of the road warrior, corporate travel account, airline miles-accumulating lifestyle that he prefers being in the air (or in the airport VIP lounge, or in a hotel room) to being home. In truth, such places actually are his home, as opposed to the spartan one-room efficiency he maintains for layovers in Omaha, where his home office is located.
From an early cell phone conversation with his sister (Amy Morton, as Kara), we learn that Ryan's globetrotting career has left him out in the cold in terms of familial relations: As Kara puts it when she asks him for a favor, "I know you have a problem with doing things for people."
The favor she asks involves having him carry a photo cutout of his niece Julie (Melanie Lynskey) and her soon-to be husband (Danny McBride, as Jim) with him on his travels, and posing with it for snapshots in front of various landmarks. But Ryan's lean, mean packing routine specifies no checked baggage, and thus the addition of the photo prop presents a particular challenge.
Speaking of baggage: In addition to his regular corporate gig, Ryan moonlights as a motivational speaker with a well-honed presentation entitled: "What's in Your Backpack?" The gist of the slick speech (which plays to drowsy, between-event conference professionals) is that the things we own weigh us down, and thus we should divest ourselves of them. (This is easy for Ryan, who owns three shirts.) The philosophy seems all very Jesus-friendly, until Ryan gets into the second portion of the speech, which invites attendees to also let go of their pesky personal relationships.
Into Ryan's uncomplicated, streamlined lifestyle appear two women whose combined influence will deliver the kind of shakeup he normally only experiences during bouts of extreme clear air turbulence. The first of these is Alex (Vera Farmiga, hotter than a two-dollar pistol), who he meets in a Dallas hotel bar. They strike up an immediate friendship based upon their collection of club cards and begin trading travel-related war stories over cocktails. The conversation eventually turns to mile high club exploits (for which no cards or keytags are provided), and they end up touching down in Ryan's room for a brief but mutually satisfying layover.
The second woman to have a disorienting impact on our seemingly well-adjusted protagonist is an upstart, college-trained business analyst named Natalie (Anna Kendrick, fresh from her appearance in New Moon). This fresh-faced young whiz-kid has convinced the home office (presided over by Jason Bateman, as Craig) that their business model of physically sending representatives out around the country to fire people face-to-face is as extravagantly expensive as it is functionally outmoded: A far more cost-effective solution, says Natalie, would be to set up video conferencing stations at client offices and have the onerous task of firing performed by "termination engineers" located right in the Omaha home office. This will cut expenses by 87%, she argues.
Of course, it will also clip the wings from Ryan's well-established (and comfortable) routine. He demonstrates the blatant inadequacies inherent in Natalie's approach, with the result that Craig agrees to send them both out together on a trial run. This way, she can observe Ryan's masterful knee-chopping technique, with the idea of incorporating it into her fire-by-wire program.
And thus the fun begins, as the painfully naive and extraordinarily over-confident Natalie gets schooled in the fine art of efficient air travel. She also learns how to deliver hard knocks while deflecting the inevitable emotional (and occasionally physical) kickback delivered by fire-ees.
Between these genuinely gut-wrenching on-the-job episodes (which feature memorable terminations of J.K. Simmons as Bob; Zach Galifianakis as Steve; and Steve Eastin as Samuels), Ryan and Natalie are joined by Alex for a wild night of corporate party crashing in Miami, which ends with all three of them (along with the fellow that the inebriated Natalie hooks up with) adrift on a chartered yacht.
By the time Ryan invites Alex to accompany him to his niece's wedding (in Milwaukee; in February), there can be no doubt that he's re-evaluating his own predisposition towards flying solo. But can Alex's itinerary be similarly skewed? It's Ryan's persona as "Mr. Empty Backpack," after all, that attracted her to him in the first place.
Up in the Air is a fun watch for us hyperlocal landlubbers, because it puts us in the aisle seat next to a first class business traveler with perks aplenty. In balance, it shows us enough of the loneliness inherent in the high-flying lifestyle to allow us to conclude that it's a nice place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there.
Clooney and Farmiga make an attractive and engaging on-screen couple, while Kendrick's performance milks a surprising degree of complexity from what might have ended up as a one-dimensional, cardboard-cutout foil of a role. Credit is also due to the film's music department for their selection of soundtrack tunes, which include songs by Sharon Jones, Rolfe Kent, Dan Auerbach, Crosby Stills and Nash, Roy Buchanan, and Charles Atlas.
The closing credits are accompanied by an original song submitted to the filmmakers by a fellow named Kevin Renick, who was moved to write the piece after himself being laid off from his job.
Way to turn lemons into lemonade, Kevin!
TO COIN A BUSINESS-SPEAK PHRASE: "GLOCAL: our global must become local." - Natalie's presentation to the home office
LIKE SHARKS: "The slower we move, the faster we die." - Ryan's "What's in Your Backpack?" philosophy
UNDOUBTEDLY: "Omaha ... it's better than you think." - Natalie to Ryan, re. his return to the home office