Up in the Air is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you. I reported the award nominations, I felt the buzz, but I could never figure how a film about a yuppie asswipe trying to rack up frequent flier miles could ever be more than a mild amusement — even if he was played by a handsome all-American with great hair and a voice that could charm the panties off a Jehova’s Witness. Even forty minutes into the movie, the most complimentary description that came to mind was “slick.” But sure enough, by the time the credits rolled, there I was with my panties around my ankles. (so to speak)*
In Jason Reitman’s third feature as a director (after Thank You For Smoking, Juno), George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate consultant who specializes in firing people and revels in the kind of single-serving lifestyle that makes Edward Norton’s Fight Club character pray for death. The ladies in his life are Vera Farmiga (The Departed) — fellow traveler, kindred spirit, F buddy; Anna Kendrick (Twilight), the snot-nosed Cornell grad who wants to lower company costs by having Clooney do his firings via video chat (a proposal his boss Jason Bateman is seriously considering); and the two sisters he never sees, one of whom is about to marry Danny McBride (the horror).
Based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn that promised to introduce us to “an entirely new state: Airworld, where the hometown paper is USA Today, the indigenous cuisine wilts under heat lamps, and the citizenry speaks a Byzantine dialect of upgrades, expense accounts, and market share,”Up in the Air doesn’t seem like a story that should work in the economically depressed, post-9/11, YouPorn, post-Snuggie era. It sounds like a critique about 10 years past its sell date. (Avatar was a good 50 past its, but it had the benefit of 3D technology). But Reitman manages to take Kirn’s cutesy satire of one A-hole’s life and turns it ever so slightly toward a time when people are losing their jobs at the hands of a stranger paid to fire them, and 21st-century man’s happily disconnected existence. Phew, this is getting sociology-y, isn’t it. Suffice to say, Reitman makes it look easy. It’s torn-from-the-headlines, but in a good way. And that isn’t what makes or breaks the movie.
Up in the Air is good for what it isn’t as much as for what it is. It’s the kind of movie that’ll make you hug your girlfriend, husband, dog, or the dude you met at the gloryhole just a little tighter afterward, and not because it’s a cloyingly sweet piece of manipulative trash like Love Actually Valentine’s Day. It’s not a romantic-comedy per se, but it is about love and togetherness. It’s not a series of half-ass vignettes, but a story, one that feels a little slow at first, but allows itself to build in such a way that it doesn’t feel like there’s an exec somewhere’s tapping his watch waiting for the football-to-the-groin scene. Then, once it’s lulled you into that false sense of security, wham! The plot twists hit you like footballs to the groin. And while you’re still reeling, it pops the cherry on your sundae with the best Sam Elliot cameo since The Big Lebowski. Better, even. Say what you will, the guy is unquestionably number one in the world at mustache having.
As for the ending… there’s not much I can say about the ending that won’t ruin the movie. I can tell you that it’s not a great ending, but it’s unexpected, and in a good way. And that speaks to the movie as a whole. It’s not the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it’s a nice surprise. And it’s nice to be surprised.