Don't over-think this one, folks. As awards season kicks into high gear, commentators of all stripes are going to talk about Up in the Air in terms of its zeitgeist relevance, its timely attention to economic instability, and the corporations that feast on the carrion of the downsized and dispossessed. And in so doing, they will overlook how simply satisfying it is as a piece of filmmaking.
Director Jason Reitman has been in this position before. When Juno took the indie-film world by storm two years ago, the chatter was all about Diablo Cody's quotable screenplay, and the breakout performance by Ellen Page. But this Reitman guy knows what he's doing behind a camera. Even when the script loses its footing in the third act, Up in the Air remains charming in a way that far too few contemporary films manage to be.
"Charming" certainly isn't a way to describe the professional life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who makes his living as a hired-gun deliverer of bad news to companies' laid-off employees. He also spends most of his days traveling from city to city, and that life-on-the-go seems to suit Ryan just fine — so fine, in fact, that he's rocked by a proposal from his employer's new go-getter hire, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), that they save travel expenses by doing all their axing via video conferencing. In an attempt to show Natalie how it's really done, Ryan takes her on the road with him, at the same time that he happens to be firing up a long-distance fling with another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga).
Reitman and Sheldon Turner worked on the adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, and the script does provide plenty of pizzazz, particularly the interplay between Ryan and Alex. Sexy on-screen banter has become a lost art — it's one of the things that made Duplicity such a pleasant surprise earlier this year — but Clooney and Farmiga go at it with the gusto of two people used to being quicker on the verbal draw than anyone else in the room. It becomes a giddy delight watching these two wary players circle one another, reveling in snappy one-liners ("I like the way you burritoed me in the sofa," Alex notes after their first tryst) and one-upmanship in their Mile High Club war stories.
Their scenes are so enjoyable it would take a knockout performance to steal the show — and that's exactly what Anna Kendrick provides as Natalie. She's playing something of a stock comedy-drama role, the outwardly confident career woman who's actually an emotional mess, a la Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, but Kendrick gives even the most potentially cringe-worthy moments a spunky energy. It's evidence of how good she is in Up in the Air that the Tony-nominated actress with the Broadway-belter pipes is convincing during a karaoke-bar scene as a bad singer.
The performances are so strong, and the socio-political context so hard to ignore — the scenes involving people getting laid-off mostly involve real-life victims of downsizing — that Reitman's direction is likely to lurk in the background of most discussion about the movie. But his work is terrific here, and not just with his actors. He finds an ideal rapid-fire editing rhythm to the early scenes establishing Ryan's travel routines; he picks a perfect visual metaphor for his establishing shots of each new city, a plane's-eye-view in which every landscape is anonymously similar. Reitman fills Up in the Air not just with memorable snippets of dialogue, but with great movie images, like a disconsolate Natalie sitting in an office full of empty chairs representing the people she's just let go.
It's a shame that Up in the Air can't finish as strongly as it begins, the road to Ryan's redemption is littered with too-obvious metaphors and only-in-movies moments. And his character's arc doesn't exactly break new ground; it's a combination of Clooney's own Michael Clayton and Reitman's previous Thank You for Smoking in humanizing its slick corporate protagonist.
It's fairly evident where Up in the Air is taking both Ryan and the audience, but a talented filmmaker knows how to make the journey to that destination an enjoyable one. And Reitman is so good at his job, we hardly even notice him doing it.