"All the things you probably hate about travelling--the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi--are warm reminders that I'm home." --Ryan Bingham, "Up in the Air"
If you haven't already seen "Up in the Air," the 2009 release from director Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Thank You for Smoking") and starring George Clooney, you may not get everything you expected. It's not the light romantic comedy its trailers make it out to be. Nor is it anywhere like the serious drama that has marked its Oscar campaign. It's somewhere in the middle, with elements of romance, humor, and drama. Maybe it's a kind of antiromantic comedy drama. Nevertheless, it carries a message. Be forewarned.
The title refers to several things: Clooney's character has a job that requires him to spend most of his life flying from one place to another, so he's up in an airplane much of the time. More important, his character lives an unsettled, uncertain life, up in the air, so to speak; he has no wife or children, no girlfriend, and no real home except an apartment he hardly visits. He's isolated and likes it that way. In a broader sense, though, the title refers to the state of affairs in society today, with a political and, especially, an economic climate that remains up in the air. Maybe we are all of us a little "up in the air," undecided about the future, unable to come to grips with a world that seems more at odds with itself and with us than it ever has in our lifetime. Think what you will of it, the movie says a number of different things to a number of different people.
Clooney plays a man named Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to fire people diplomatically (and to help console them afterwards). In reality, he's no more than a corporate hit man, a company assassin. His agency sends him and colleagues like him out to big companies to do the job that employers haven't the finesse or skill or guts to do themselves. The more the economy suffers, the more corporations downsize, and the more the company Bingham works for thrives. It's obviously a topical theme in today's bleak financial times, and one can see Bingham's calling representing the cold, faceless, uncaring attitude of the business world.
Now, you might think that Bingham is, therefore, a pretty cold-blooded, unemotional bastard, and you'd be close to the truth. However, he is outwardly an affable-enough fellow, played in Clooney's typically charming, confident, amiable manner. Yet we can also see that beneath the surface of this seemingly nice guy is a rather uncommon individual who chooses a way of life that gives him absolute freedom from any form of personal relationships. He doesn't believe in love, home, family, or permanent attachments. As he says, "We all die alone." His interactions with other people are purely pragmatic. Until his company decides to do away with his own job (as he knows it).
In a brilliant bit of irony, Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman) decides to take the advice of a new, young, female executive with the company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), and pull all the company's agents off the road to do their firing via computer. Everyone will stay in the office, and the company will save a fortune in travel expenses. And Bingham won't have to fly anymore, which he realizes will disrupt his lifestyle entirely. Mad as a hornet, he says to Keener, "Before you try to revolutionize my business, I'd like to know that you actually know my business!" The boss decides to send them both out on the road together so that Keener can get a feel for how a real-life firing goes, face to face with the individuals they're firing.
Bingham and Keener's relationship is the most-rewarding and the most-amusing part of the story, before it gets serious. No, not that kind of serious; Keener thinks of Bingham as "old." No, Keener learns that losing one's job is more serious than she thought when she has to face people head-on; furthermore, she learns another piece of distressing news that has her in tears. What I found most humorous, though, is that she tells Bingham he's behaving like a child for his indifferent lack of commitment, yet she's the driving force behind the firing of people long-distance by computer.
Meanwhile, Bingham meets a woman on the road he thinks is perfect for him, an attractive woman named Alex Goran (Vera Farniga), who is a frequent flyer as he is, just as noncommittal, and just as concerned about "elite status." She's a woman, she says, he doesn't have to worry about; they can meet here and there across the country as their travels permit, carry on their affair wherever, and never think about marriage. If it weren't for that darned Keener woman wanting to keep Bingham tied down to an office job, his life would be perfect.
Bingham's sister is getting married, and he needs to attend the wedding. While he's there, further complications arise, the filmmakers forcing the audience to consider the character's values. As Bingham says, does he really want to be that guy standing alone at the bar forever? When we come to think about it, maybe "life's better with company...everybody needs a copilot."
But things don't get any easier for Bingham; the movie offers up any number of additional obstacles for him and provides no easy answers to his dilemma. Will he eventually stay in one place, and will he ever get married? Will he forsake the freedom of his noncommittal philosophy and settle down as most people do? Or will he get another job that takes him on the road? And what will happen to young Keener and the older Alex? Will they continue to be a part of his life, or will he shuck them as he has discarded everyone else?
Some people will find the movie's ending too pat. Some will find it too open to further questions. While still others will get annoyed that it offers too little or too much of one thing or another. I thought it ended just right, if on a slightly preachy note. But, then, I didn't mind the lecture.
You'll find the anamorphic transfer of this film in good shape, the dimensions rendered in their original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. The colors are deep, with facial tones especially faithful and a light, natural film grain to provide appropriate texture. Object delineation is also fairly impressive, particularly if upscaled, with very little evidence of filtering and only some minor edge enhancement visible.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is clear and clean, which helps immensely in a dialogue-driven movie such as this one. There's excellent bass response, too: deep, robust, and well controlled. The surrounds don't see much action, though, except in helping with the ambient musical bloom, but that's as one might expect.
The disc carries the usual complement of bonus materials. First is the obligatory audio commentary, this one by writer-director Jason Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg, and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld, who, among other things, try to explain what the movie means to them. Next is a short featurette called "Shadowplay: Before the Story," a little over two minutes on the title graphics design. And next are five deleted scenes lasting about fifteen minutes with optional director commentary. Some of these deleted scenes are quite good and might have worked in the film. At least one we can understand being left out.
Finally, we get eighteen scene selections; some theatrical previews and promos at start-up and in the main men; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
While "Up in the Air" is a good film, a worthy film, a thoughtful film, I'm not sure it is really an Oscar-calibre film, even though it's enormously entertaining. The move has a feeling of "The Graduate" about it, updated for the twenty-first century, and some of the music supports this notion as well. The movie has its say, it makes its point, and it does so in a somewhat obtuse, roundabout way, leaving the viewer with a clear idea of its meaning but an ambiguous feeling about the main character. It's good to find a movie that doesn't take the easiest route to a customary conclusion. Still, not everyone may find the film entirely satisfying, either, its being too glib on the one hand and posing questions about the main character for which it has few or no answers on the other.
"The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living." --Ryan Bingham