Short Version: Up In The Air is a well-crafted and very timely piece of cinema. A sure contender in the coming Awards Season.
Up In The Air is a film whose entire point can be discerned from its title. This new offering from Juno director Jason Reitman stars George Clooney as a man whose existence involves traveling the country airport to airport, essentially living "above" all that life presses upon the rest of us stuck below.
Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, is a corporate ax man. Struggling companies hire men like Ryan to fire employees for them - a way of sparing cowardly bosses the inconvenience of actually having to face their crushed employees. With the economy in shambles, life is grand for the restless Ryan - he has plenty of axed employees to help "transition" all across America, meaning he can stay out on the road, free, flying high where he feels he belongs.
A monkey wrench gets thrown into Ryan's frequent-flying lifestyle when young corporate shark Natalie (Anna Kendrick) sells Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) on a business model where ax men terminate employees over webcam, sparing the company the bill for all that costly traveling. Seeing his own profession (and lifestyle) facing the brink of extinction, Ryan convinces the boss that this young whipper-snapper Natalie needs a firsthand tour of the world she is so desperate to "streamline." So off they go, old pro and young shark, flying into the failing heartland of America.
The journey, of course, reveals new things about the travelers. Ryan has some wonderful "layovers" with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent-flyer elitist, and starts to wonder if his isolated life is truly worthwhile. Natalie goes out on the front lines, axing real flesh-and-blood employees face-to-face, and wonders if her cold ambition isn't really hiding a soft heart. Ryan is soft in demeanor but slightly cold at heart and Natalie is his opposite; it's a wonderful pairing. By the end, who can say what is what and what the future will hold? And therein lies, what I feel will be for many people, the make or break point of Up In The Air.
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner's adaptation of Walter Kim's novel is masterful in its approach. There is a lot of heavy stuff going on in this film, yet the film itself manages to avoid being cheaply sentimental or emotionally manipulative. The scenes of Ryan and Natalie at work, firing people, contain montages of real Americans who have been "cast adrift" in the struggling economy. The impact of hearing and seeing real people vent their anger, fear and frustrations about the future hits with a sense of urgency, but also with a sense of real human dignity that is hard for Hollywood to mimic. Luckily, Reitman makes the wise choice of just laying things out there with a documentarian's eye - this is what is going on, this is what it's like out there right now - without preaching any gospel or trying to hang blame.
The two principal characters, Ryan and Natalie, are likewise drawn from the smart angle of two people sent out to deal with a mess that's been made - without worrying about who made it. Stripped of cliched moral or ethical concerns, the film opens up a very fresh examination about how we deal with turmoil, fear and uncertainty as people, both externally (like concern for our jobs), or internally, primarily where our emotions and emotional connections are concerned.
The principal cast in this film are excellent. George Clooney - in a brilliantly understated performance - never seems to shy away from the ever-present fact that aspects of his off-screen persona - his real-life attitudes toward marriage, for example - are being reflected in Ryan's character. I'll go so far as to say Clooney is brave in this film, for channeling so much of his public swagger and gusto through Ryan, even when it's being made clear during several of Up In The Air's most gut-wrenching (and beautifully understated) moments that Ryan is a man who has been believing in his own B.S. for far too long.
Anna Kendrick has already sparked a raging buzz for her turn as hot-shot Natalie, and rightfully so. She spends just about all of her screen time trading quips with one of the most charming and engaging leading men currently on the planet, and never once comes off looking like the new girl at school (unless her character is supposed to). In fact, Kendrick is pretty much a scene-stealer throughout the film - impressive achievement when acting against the likes of Clooney.
Vera Farmiga is as elusive, mysterious and beautiful as ever in her role as Alex. Like her performance in The Departed, I never feel like I've gotten enough of her presence onscreen - but I'm certainly left feeling like I want to see more of her in the future. Up In The Air also boasts some great cameos, including standout moments from J.K. Simmons (Juno), Zach Galifianakas (The Hangover) and Danny McBride (Tropic Thunder).
Jason Reitman once again deserves his sure-to-be-forthcoming award nominations for this film. From the opening credits sequence, which features a gorgeous mashup of pilot's eye landscaping shots; to every richly colored scene; to the still, quiet and heavily weighted moments of human emotion, the direction here is tight and expertly controlled, yet still soft and subtle enough to make you forget you're watching something that has been so carefully, masterfully, crafted. From start to finish, I was totally on board for this flight.
The ending will be the dividing factor for this film, no doubt. I'm still wrestling with that ending and it is primarily why I can't give Up In The Air five stars. Without spoiling anything, I'll refer to what I said at the start: Up In The Air is a film whose entire point can be discerned from its title.
For those who like movies where good is rewarded, bad is punished and there is no such thing as moral or ethical gray - you will be upset by the end of this film, I won't lie to you. For those of you who are of the opinion that the journey of life is never as simple as flying from point A to point B without delays, inclement weather, or cancellations, then be happy in the knowledge that there is a beautiful, timely film out there talking directly to you.