It seems like such a simple movie: George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an experienced corporate downsizer (he fires people for a living), who books enough air time traveling from town to town that he’s about ready to be indoctrinated into the highly elite 10 million mile airline club. Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young bright newbie, is his charge, accompanying him on the road to learn about the intricacies of the downsizing industry (times are booming, after all). That’s basically the set up, and the rest is about how Natalie learns that firing people his more than an abstraction, and how Clooney's Ryan moves past his well-practiced cynicism to reconnect to his family and his feelings.
Simple, yes, but there’s not a single wrong move in this seemingly simple dramedy that’s both intelligent and amusing, and that captures our present culture with a stroke of seeming luck (there’s not a film in recent memory that could claim to be quite this relevant).
The movie is actually relevant on two fronts at once. The consistent firings throughout the movie – which eventually demonstrate the entire range of possible reaction – certainly capture the drama (and sardonic irony) behind the headlines of the past year and a half. But perhaps even more to the point is how well the movie captures not only the life of so-called “road warriors,” but the two kinds of lifestyles that have evolved in our modern world: the corporate career (which seem to be for ambitious people who have personal issues driving them away from their home habitats – and whose personal lives tend to be, well, a bit emptier), and the stay-at-homes, those folks born between the coasts who have never, really, left the nest, whose personal lives are a bit too filled with family obligations and messy relationships, and look at suspicion and disdain at the first group, even as they secretly admire their sophistication and envy their experience.
Ryan and Natalie are clearly in the first group, and the story takes them from airport to airport (we get a birds eye view of each city before they land for the scene); Ryan finds a girlfriend, Natalie learns how to do her first firings (she’s good at it), and the movie heads inexorably to its confrontations. Ryan’s apartment, where he supposedly “lives” (about 45 days of the year) is an empty white box, and his single relationship of significance is with another fellow traveler of the skies (after sex in a random hotel in a random city, they check their laptops to see when their schedules bring them into proximity again for a quick nookie). Natalie has subordinated her own talents in order to follow her boyfriend to Omaha, and doesn’t seem to see a contradiction in wanting a stellar career and an idealized home life at the same time. Both are due for reckonings, and when they come, they are both amusing and satisfying.
The scenes when Ryan travels home to Wisconsin for his little sister’s wedding are perhaps the most outstanding. Here, the movie feels not just well crafted but also knowingly authentic: Ryan gets to revisit his high school, and share his experiences with his girlfriend (Alex – played wonderfully by Vera Farmiga), while he’s also forced to intervene in a family squabble, and use his powers of persuasion to make the case for marriage (a case, it must be said, he doesn’t really much agree with). It’s almost his cue to start over, to shed his life and re-assess the steady cynicism he’s had to adopt, and he’s like a teenager again, once again taking a chance on a crush, and leaving himself vulnerable.
Which is another reason I so like this film. It’s neither sentimental nor completely cynical. Instead, it simply seems wise. It’s also about how adults relate to each other, another treat we don’t so often get to see in films these days.
That’s why even though it may be simple, and essentially a light-hearted comedy, I really think Up in the Air belongs on the list of the best ten movies of the decade. It’s happens to be something that not only captures the zeitgeist of the times – it turns that into a keen observation about life, and about characters who know a lot but still have something more to learn.
But what’s most deft about this film is how well it’s constructed – from the superb acting to the editing, to the choice of cinematic moments, like the nice, understated ending. Like the people who’ve been “let go” by their firms, by the time they reach the end of the story, life for both Ryan and Natalie is “up in the air,” and for the first time, as Ryan looks out the airplane window, all he sees are clouds, his destination obscured from view. It’s a nice touch for ending a movie that throughout, so surely knows where it’s going.