It isn’t as easy as you might think but writer/director Jason Reitman has managed to make it into the mile high club on just his third attempt. Though the Oscar-nominated director is still a novice by most standard definitions of the word, his latest, “Up in the Air”, soars with such grace and ease that you would think he has been piloting these birds for ages now. Sure he has the familial pedigree in his back pocket (Daddy’s name is Ivan, in case you didn’t know) but it is his personal track record that continues to impress. His debut, “Thank You for Smoking” was well, smoking; and his follow-up, “Juno”, made him one of the most sought after directors of the day. He is taking a decidedly more adult flight path with his return and, though I appreciated the maturity he brought to the teenage world of “Juno”, I am happy to see “Up in the Air” is an adult-only flight.
Upon take-off, Reitman takes us straight to the skies. In fact, all you can hear is the serene sound of nothing but air as you glide above the clouds. When you look down, you see the states from above, accompanied by a funked out version of “This Land Is Your Land”. Looking down on the land, it looks so pristine and lustrous. The orderly lines that divide the grounds and the huddled masses of tall buildings look to provide a solid structure in which to foster those American dreams everyone is always talking about. But when the plane lands, it becomes pretty clear pretty quick that life on the ground is an illusion to those looking down on it. On the ground, America is crumbling. People are losing their jobs, their security and their hope. This is where “he” comes in…
A passenger on this flight and our humbled protagonist, is George Clooney, I mean, Ryan Bingham. I get them confused because they both seem to be aging players who have refused their entire lives to ever being weighed down by anything or anyone. Clooney of course is one of the most famous bachelors on the planet. Ryan may not be famous but he is famous to those who do know him for keeping himself up in the air, if you will, as often as he can. Ryan travels across the United States and fires people for a living. He shows up at an office and calls people he has never met in one by one to tell them that their position no longer exists because these companies don’t have the decency to do it themselves. When he isn’t telling people that they no longer have the means to support their families, he moonlights as a motivational speaker who insists that families are life’s biggest trap.
Ryan is still a likeable guy despite all these things. He doesn’t get off on firing people; it is just how he makes his living and it affords him the lifestyle that suits him best. Another reason he endears is because Clooney plays him so smoothly. You could say it isn’t much of a stretch for him but playing Ryan and going through everything he does means seeing a Clooney that is finally accepting his own mortality and questioning what kind of meaning his later years will hold for him. When his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that his job may become locally executed, Ryan realizes that his grounding means that life will finally stop moving at 500 miles an hour. Meanwhile, the girl he is showing the professional ropes to (Anna Kendrick) reminds him of what it means to be young and how to believe in the possibilities people offer and the woman he is romantically roped up with (Vera Farmiga) suddenly seems like that possibility.
“Up in the Air” may touch on some fairly contrived topics and set itself in an all too timely milieu but with Reitman in the captain’s chair, the flight is completely turbulence free. Reitman has crafted a poignant reflection on where America is right now, in terms of the economy and their value system, that is always insightful and never judgmental. He pulls performances from his cast that are so fine in their restraint and their candidness. He puts it all together with style and finesse and, by taking to the lofty skies, he cements himself as a great modern storyteller. Perhaps most importantly, in what is so often called the darkest period America has had to face in years, Reitman somehow pays homage to how trying it all is while reminding us that it is also perfectly acceptable to laugh.
Review by Joseph Bélanger