Ryan Bingham is a guy we should hate. His entire career is based on other people’s misfortune–he is hired by large companies to do their layoffs–and he’s chosen a lifestyle of relational aloofness. His charms shouldn’t work on us. But they do. Because Ryan Bingham is also George Clooney, and let’s be honest, it’s pretty difficult to truly hate George Clooney. The guy is too charming, too handsome, and too good of an actor. He’s Dr. Doug Ross, Danny Ocean, Michael Clayton, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anyone else in this role and it doesn’t work.
Ryan Bingham could have been another movie cliche: the isolated businessman who is jarred to a more compassionate reality by a series of tragic events. He is Kanji Watanabe from Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, or Nick Naylor from Jason Reitman’s first feature, Thank You for Smoking. Bingham does share numerous characteristics with the cliche, but manages to transcend it by being more self-aware and authentic–more human–than nearly any of his counterparts (save Ikiru, which you should see immediately after reading this review).
Up in the Air manages to walk the fine line between cliche and originality in nearly every way. It has the feel of an independent film, but marketed for a mainstream audience. It’s a story that will feel a bit obvious, but has enough of its own personal charm to surprise and delight. Its characters all could have been annoyingly conventional, but the cast give fresh performances that draw us in. Its humor and direction and cinematography don’t initially appear remarkable on their own, yet all come together perfectly to create a simple-yet-profound film. The script and dialogue are perfectly relatable while also maintaining a sense of maturity about it. One stand-out scene happens when the three central characters discuss modern day romance, the two women comparing notes about their ideal man. Anna Kendrick is also particularly noteworthy as the student to Bingham’s firing ways. She embodies the intelligent eagerness of a recent college grad ready to succeed in the business world, only to experience the harsh reality that one’s youthful ideals might not work in the real world. I’ve met folks like Kendrick’s Natalie Keener. I may have even been like her once, jumping into a post-college job head first without ever stopping to think if it was wise. It wasn’t. I learned. So does she.
Jason Reitman has created a film that is both timely and timeless. In a year where our economy fell apart, job loss was rampant, and there was an overwhelming sense of loneliness, Up in the Air manages to capture the zeitgeist of 2009 while also offering a glimpse of hope. We don’t have to agree with Bingham’s isolated lifestyle because, deep down, neither does he. As he slowly awakens to the reality that he is alone in spite of his surroundings, we also are reminded of what is truly important–people. Reitman filmed a number of employees’ recounting their reactions to being told they were getting laid off. You can feel their frustration, confusion, and bitterness. But they also recount how the experience allowed for them to rethink their lives, to check their values and realign themselves with the people they love the most. That’s why this is an essentially American film; these are people who get knocked over by hard economic times, pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move forward with a renewed wisdom and strength. It’s a coming-of-age story. That’s their story, that’s Ryan Bingham’s story, and that’s our story. Up in the Air is one of the finest films of 2009. If you’ve ever lost a job, felt alone, or fallen in love, then it might be a film for you.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1193138/