Words On Film: Up in the Air

In Up in the Air, what begins as a treatise on staunch individualism and the minimalism turns to ruminations on love, family and the people who motivate us to live and learn and work. George Clooney portrays professional down-sizer, self-proclaimed shark, but extremely lovable Ryan Bingham. While spending 80 percent (or more) of the year "on the road" flying from firing location to firing location, Ryan is concerned with travel status and having as little of the those things that weigh you down individual (family, home, possessions) as possible. The film quickly turns as Ryan meets Vera Farmiga's beguiling Alex, and his new coworker Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick. Director Jason Reitman does an exceptional job blending the more touching true moments with comedic parody, including a scene in which Ryan goes through airport security with the same whooshing, quick, tight-angle sequence that is more commonly associated to the "suit up" scenes in the early Batman film. No plastic nipples, though.

Beautifully, the film acts both comically and sincerely, but never seems weighed down or out of control. The characters are all believable and strongly portrayed and the corporate downsizing scenes are so honest as to be tragic and gut-wrenching. As Clooney floats through life, living with nothing and no one, perfectly happy to be a traveling island of a man it is clear that something must change his ideal (but socially unrealistic) lifestyle. But, the greatest success in the film is that none of these changes happen in the "sunshine and birdsong" way of recent romantic comedies. Instead, change comes with consequences, fear and heavy revelations. All perfectly sized for the roles and the story. The only downside is how the pace slows in the second half, and we lose track of Kendrick's Natalie (who was both a driving comedic force and a sort of spiritual touchstone). Essentially, Up in the Air steps down from innovation for the last 45 minutes, and goes an emotional, more straightforward route.

The philosophy of the film is most interesting (as well as the twist ending, and the social implications) because Clooney's pseudo-minimalism is seen by most in the film who hear him speak about it as a great lightening of the load of life, but the film wants us to believe that there's something inherently sad in lacking connections. It's unclear that Clooney's Ryan would be anything but utterly and completely happy his whole life without the connections he gains throughout the film, but his "redemption" is thrust upon him by characters harboring the popular ideals. What happens if he doesn't ever make an effort? Do we dislike him, do we find him callous? Yes, his disconnections from family and love make him isolated, but the examples the film provides of family and connection at work all seem tenuous, troubled, or secretly failing. It's a bit split in tone, claiming that the happy man who has everything he needs is somehow flawed, when marriages and couples are failing left and right. Ryan's decision to jump into the fray of normal life is built on idealism, the very kind he attempted to avoid through staunch individualism. And his results, while growth-providing, are questionably valuable. What's the lesson here?

Ultimately, Up in the Air provides another strong, honest and likable role for Clooney (who at times seems like he's reprising a less over-the-top version of his Intolerable Cruelty character) and some exceptional chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga. We learn a lot through subtlety, rather than big gestures, and we find out that people need personal success only insofar as they can reflect it in their life's loves. We also have to learn who to trust, and when to engage. And at times, disengage. I'd wholeheartedly recommend Up in the Air, if you haven't already seen it.

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