Up in the Air is a moving and thought-provoking meditation on the empty life of a man without purpose and a young woman married to her career drifting across the United States looking for meaning in a job that revolves around impersonality and distance.
Or, it is an understated, well-observed comedy in which a womanizing rogue is thrown together with a recent Ivy League graduate seeking to upstage him and prove he is a dinosaur from an outdated era, with moving and often highly amusing results.
Because both of these are legit takes on Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air. I suppose, really, it’s what you might call a tragicomedy, but even that doesn’t really work as a label (I think of that as something like Todd Solondz’s film Happiness, perhaps, or maybe it has to be applied to single characters like Owen Wilson’s Francis in The Darjeeling Limited).
Anyway, George Clooney is the professional “downsizer” Ryan, who spends his life – you guessed it – up in the air. He flies around being an arse to people and firing them in a very smug way and never spends more than a couple of days at home at a time. He shags women he meets in hotel bars, and hardly has a possession to his name despite clearly being quite rich. He has millions of air miles but never goes on holiday. You get the picture – to us, there is no way that life could be fulfilling, but to him, it’s all he needs. He uses the analogy of a shark; if he stops moving, he drowns (actually a slight popular misconception).
A quick side note: when I first saw this movie, I’m not sure I quite understood the gravity of losing one’s job and why it was significant that Clooney’s character went around the States (including the devastated industry of the Rust Belt) to fire dudes. Sure, I got that it was a big deal, but only recently did I see how it could lead to someone’s whole life unravelling, and how they could end up in on-screen tears as he gives them a little package with some “attractive options” for the future.
Anyway, he’s predictably very cold, and he does coldness really well. There’s this weird hardness underneath Clooney’s salt-and-pepper good looks, and all it takes is a cynical smile from him to convince the audience that he is pretty empty inside. The real question is whether we feel sorry for him, having created this situation for himself, or not.
And that’s where Anna Kendrick comes in, playing a super-naïve Cornell graduate called Natalie, curt yet anxious and threatening the established order of Clooney’s life. She’s a top audience surrogate, asking all the probing questions one would of a man who spends 320 days a year on the road, and is as entertaining as one would expect.
The real praise, though, goes to Vera Farmiga for the role of Alex, a travel acquaintance of Ryan’s who gradually evolves into something more important. No more here, because despite the fact I said that I would include spoilers on this blog, this is such an accessible film (I’d be hard-pressed to find a reason for anyone to dislike it) that I’m not going to do so here. Instead I’m going to suggest you go watch it and see what happens.
Up in the Air is both sad and very funny, reminiscent of Reitman’s previous movie, Juno. If Juno was a film about hardship that had a devil-may-care attitude towards it and whose characters eventually came good, though, then Up In The Air sits decidedly more on the fence between comedy and tragedy.
In one scene where Ryan’s total detachment and nihilism causes Natalie to burst into tears in the lobby of the Hilton, it is hard to tell whether it’s okay to laugh when Ryan tries to comfort her, embarrassed, as we realize he has no idea how. Not since Lost in Translation do I remember a platonic relationship between an older man and a young woman explore identity and existence in the modern world in such depth. Scarlett Johansson was only 18 at the time of the production of Lost in Translation, and Kendrick’s 23-year-old in Up In The Air seems vastly more naïve.
While not as stylized as Juno (no Rainn Wilson delivering lines like “What’s the prognosis, fertile Myrtle?”), Up In The Air is just as considered and measured. In the same way the earlier film was neither pro-life nor pro-choice re: pregnancy, it initially seems as though the message in this case is going to be one about the importance of settling down, having a family, et cetera, but I was impressed at how Reitman avoids being quite so explicit. Generally, the guy seems to be good at nuance, though his first film Thank You For Smoking was massively disappointing in that sense – where the issue of lobbying and making a living through “immoral” means like selling cigarettes offered as much potential as the topic of abortion in Juno’s case, or work-life balance and fear of commitment in Up in the Air’s case, Thank You For Smoking just came to the conclusion that the opinion of one’s son matters. What a newsflash.
Getting back to the point, though: there are practical drawbacks and terrifying moments regarding the sacrifices of marriage, children, and buying a house, as both Ryan’s siblings and Natalie demonstrate in the film. Although Ryan goes through moments of intense self-doubt regarding his philosophy of “no luggage”, it is ultimately that; a philosophy, to which one can subscribe or not.
Without wanting to get into too preachy or moralizing territory, in the era of social media and Tinder/Bumble/Happn/[take your pick of dating app] whether or not to buy into the idea that having no ties allows you to live life to the full has never been a more relevant question. Anyone who has questions about the “correct” and most fulfilling way to live in the modern world should give this a watch.