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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Up in the Air (review)

You Are Not Your Frequent Flyer Miles

Why, you’d almost think that Tyler Durden hadn’t gone off on those rants of his ten years ago. How did the anti-pointless-bullshit cautionary tale of Fight Club become the actual freakin’ blueprint for the past decade instead of the, you know, how-not-to-live anti-plan?

If there is a thrill of recognition to Up in the Air — and a horror of recognition, too — it may be because this funny and smart and bitter and gently shocking film so perfectly encapulates the self-delusion we’ve subjected ourselves to through the 2000s, and the quiet desperation we’ve lived with while living with that self-delusion. Not all of us as individuals, of course, but all of us in the aggregate, as a culture: we’ve collectively created a society that inserts artificial distance between people (jobs that keep us occupied 24/7, for instance), and we’ve called it Good (gotta make a living, right?), but now it’s all falling apart, and we don’t know how to deal with it.
Up in the Air might have been a sucker punch of a wakeup call if part of what we’ve done to ensure people stay disconnected from one another didn’t involve fracturing media to the point where only the choir shows up for the sermon they’re already predisposed to agree with. Though perhaps there’s some hope to be found in George Clooney’s presence here: perhaps the all-around appeal of Fantastic Mr. Clooney, who is our Cary Grant and our Gary Cooper and our Clark Gable all in the same package, means that he’ll accidentally entice some nonchoir members into the church.

Not that there’s anything sermon-like about Air, which is as nimble and effortless a film as director Jason Reitman has given us, though it’s closer in tone to his satirical 2005 feature debut Thank You for Smoking than to his 2007 bittersweet comedy Juno. (The script is by Reitman and Sheldon Turner [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Longest Yard], based on the novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] by Walter Kirn [Thumbsucker].) With its clever wit and easy dazzle, this is like the screwball comedies of old… if they were sad, too, under all the banter, and if they hadn’t been distractions from the last unraveling of America, in the Great Depression and the worst days of World War II, but had instead faced the unraveling full on. This is that most wonderful of rarities: a movie for grownups, one that doesn’t need fantasy to be transporting… and one that doesn’t need to couch its metaphors in make-believe to make them go down smoother. It acknowledges that we can face reality just fine, and laugh at it, and at ourselves, at the same time that we might let it drop a word or two of warning in our ear, too.

Because here we have Ryan Bingham. Ryan doesn’t care so much for the Ikea furniture that haunted Fight Club’s Jack, presumably, because he mostly lives out of business-class airport lounges and the kind of hotels that are attached to convention centers: it’s a life of imitation luxury, bland and corporate and cheap and cold under the pretense of hominess. (When we do finally visit his tiny studio apartment, which he inhabits only a few weeks out of the year, it’s barely distinguishable from a room in one of those personality-free suit-and-tie pitstops.) But Ryan loves him his loyalty-program membership cards and his frequent flyer miles — his life is lived as if he were in a suave TV commercial for the “simulated hospitality” (as another character terms it) for the nonstop, on-the-go, busy-busy-busy life of an Important Suit with People to See and Business to Conduct. He looks great, all the time — because he’s George Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare at Goats), of course — and he really does love the swipe swipe swipe of credit cards and rental-car points cards and hotel key cards. They slip through electronic readers and instruct service employees on how to fake being happy to see him, which is fine with him, because he’s gone before any real connection — and any real like or love or even hate — can develop. He’s happy with this life.

Ryan is Jack’s smirking nonrevenge.

Ryan loves the phoniness of what passes for community and comfort in his life; he actively embraces it. He’s horrified at the prospect of having his day not be defined by airline schedules and hotel checkout times, which is what happens when he gets pulled off the road. His company, see, is bringing the work in-house… and the work is firing people. Other companies outsource their layoffs to Ryan’s company, and he shows up with a “strategy packet” and a faux-sympathetic smile and impersonal prepared patter to tell total strangers that they no longer have the job they’ve been busting their asses at for years. (All the rage that gets directed at Ryan — some of it by nonactors who actually have been laid off from their jobs and are expressing genuine fury — is the howling powerlessnes of our day.) But now, hotshot Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick: New Moon) has come up with a way for Ryan’s company to do it all over Internet video conferencing.

The irony! Ryan is on the receiving end of the shit he usually shovels: oh, he’s not gonna lose his job, but he might as well, for the pain this causes him. Not travel? How will he hit, on his frequent flyer tally, that magic secret number he has in mind? The miles issue is the sour heart of Up in the Air — the miles themselves are merely a way of keeping score for Ryan; they are meaningless in themselves, as far as he’s concerned, and he is not at all interested in what they could do for him (like take him on a tropical vacation).

Who is Ryan keeping score against? That’s a good question. Ryan himself doesn’t seem to know, or to care. Perhaps it’s against the likes of fellow road warrior Alex Goran (played by the irreplaceable Vera Farmiga: Orphan, Nothing But the Truth). “Think of me as you, with a vagina,” she tells him, after their sexy-smart meet-cute, when they’ve begun hooking up whenever their paths cross at airports. She really is very much like him, in fact, which works just fine until who he is begins to change… maybe…

Unfortunately for Ryan, he’s been too good at eveything he does, from firing people to racking up miles to his side gig as a motivational speaker, wherein he “inspires” people to give up everything that makes them human, especially their relationships. He’s helped create a heartless world in which no one can rely on anyone else, for anything. What happens when the man who prefers fake airline-hotel-rental car loyalty to the real thing suddenly starts to wonder about the wisdom of that? Is it too late for him to change? How do you get off a merry-go-round when you’re no longer enjoying the ride? What if the merry-go-round doesn’t want to stop for you?

It won’t be fun or simple, that’s for sure.


MPAA: rated R for language and some sexual content

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • e

    I just saw this today, and enjoyed it, but want to see it again on dvd to get more from it. I’m only 25, so I actually identified more with Anna Kendrick’s character. The scene that kind of hit me was right after her text message, and both Ryan and Alex are sitting opposite, talking to her.

    I really think people my age could use mentors these days. Not because they’ll have all the answers, as obviously Ryan/Alex don’t, but because they can give perspective. To a generation that has had so many stories told to us about how to live the perfect life, that we often exist in stasis, unsure of where to move. That or we just keep moving forward without purpose, that suddenly we’ll end up years down the road without gaining any substance.

  • Christina

    If I would leave the movie up in the air after 5 minutes after it startet I would not miss anything, boring movie, I could not believe they gave it 4 stars.
    Don’t wast your money and time on it.

  • Clo

    Horrible movie! I do not think George Clooney can act. He has no emotions, no creativity, no charisma, no sex appeal, he is meek and have a fake smile. The movie is meaningles: weak dialogue, repetitive, cliche and dull from the beginning. We did not enjoy ourselves. Personnaly I should have staid home to do some landry. It would have been more fulfulling (and cheaper).

  • DUVSTER

    Gets product placement award of the year. Horrible movie! They might as well have written a movie about funerals ,it would have been cheerier. The movie seemed to celebrate shallow people, cheating hearts and misery.

  • Peter

    @DUVSTER: Movies that feature characters do not necessarily “celebrate” them. Up In The Air shows the pain this lifestyle causes these individuals, and we’re hardly meant to rush out of the multiplex and off to sign up for a frequent flyer program. Witness Ryan’s crowning achievement with the pilot; there is no joy, and at the end of the film only reluctant acceptance after his rejection.

    The myriad misspellings in the negative comments above are telling.

  • Kate

    I honestly don’t know what to make of this movie. Clooney’s character seemed truly happy with his life-at-arms-distance existence until he found himself falling for Alex; after that, he began to reevaluate everything. The final few minutes still baffle me (I won’t say more — total spoilers, I’m afraid). I enjoyed the film a great deal, but I felt oddly empty as I walked out of the theater (my guess is that was the point). But I must admit I was totally sucked in to Ryan’s change of heart (my son tells me I’m so, so naive!), so that the film’s ending was achingly depressing for me. And if anyone has a good interpretation of that final voice-over line spoken by Clooney, please share (with appropriate spoiler warnings, of course).

  • I liked it quite a bit. Seen/heard Clooney in three new films in the last six weeks or so, and think he’s becoming a better actor with every movie he’s in.

  • DT

    I juat saw the movie tonight and thought it was really good despite being one of the laid-off masses myself. (My boss sent me a rejection e-mail after asking me into his office hat in hand.) I’m not sure where the naysayers got the bees in their bonnets about this. I took it to be the story of a desensitized man becoming resensitized and then (SPOILER ALERT!) having to come to terms with continuing the lifestyle he always wanted despite not wanting it anymore. The line at the end seemed to hint that the life he’s led is now an albatross around his neck now that he’s a better man (END SPOILER). Perhaps those who did not like this film should go see SHERLOCK HOLMES, a fine entertainment without the subtlety some find boring, or AVATAR, a film that slaps you in the face with its points.

  • Kate

    Sign of a significant film — I can’t stop thinking about it! Thanks, DT, for your help in unraveling that final line. I can see your point — but somehow I felt that those final seconds were meant to be optimistic, even if I didn’t quite get it on a first viewing. [SPOILER ALERT! There is this very striking moment at the end when Ryan is standing in front of the “big board” at the airport — the camera focuses on his hand clutching the handle of his carry-on bag. Suddenly, he releases it, for the first time standing free of it. In a way, I felt that it wasn’t a metaphoric back-pack that threatened to weigh him down, but the very real lifestyle (represented by that carry-on bag) that was crushing him. He seemed to see that in the end. The final line of voice-over is this: “The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.” It’s the “slightly brighter than the rest” part that baffles and intrigues me. He has learned something, even if it hasn’t quite freed him. But I want to add the word “yet” to the end of that sentence — it hasn’t freed him YET. END SPOILERS]

    Big question — those interviews at the end of the film, with the people talking about how their lives have changed and what being fired had done to them. Who was conducting those interviews? Was it Ryan? Remember, part of Ryan’s dialogue with those he fired was to tell them “this is just the beginning of a process — we’ll be in touch.” Of course, he never was. Now, perhaps, this is what has changed. Perhaps he is gradually humanizing a dehumanizing process. Or am I just being overly hopeful and naive?

    I guess I liked the film, even if it isn’t an easy one to get a handle on. Maybe that’s why I like it.

  • Perhaps those who did not like this film should go see SHERLOCK HOLMES, a fine entertainment without the subtlety some find boring, or AVATAR, a film that slaps you in the face with its points.

    Whatever. The more I hear about this, the more I’d rather stay home and read a good book.

    I know far too many people who are unemployed to want to see a movie like this right now–and if that makes me a bad person, then hey, I’m a bad person…

  • Simone

    This was, for me, a surprisingly good movie and Clooney is perfect in it. I’ve been laid off twice in the last ten years and found some of the corporate tactics very familiar.

  • Boingo

    I used to hate cliches, but some hit so squarely,and cuts to the point: You’ll find meaning and relate to this movie, especially if you’ve “been there.”

    I’ve been there,and done that a few times in my life. Flying around, feeling cool and detached from a boring 9-5. The movie is dead on about the superficialness of it all.

    The movie is excellent,and the firing scenes”hit home,”in these times.

    Excellent review, Mary Ann. Your piece is anything but “cookie cutter.”

  • Drave

    Easily one of the year’s best films.

  • AG

    Saw this last night with a friend and we were both well pleased — though my friend thought it was going to be a lighter rom-com thing instead of, you know, How We Live Now. Fantastic film, great script, three great leads (with great assists from Bateman and Simmons), and an ending that left me grateful to Mr. Reitman for not underestimating the audience’s intelligence.

  • Boingo

    Thinking more about this movie (delayed reaction- same slo junk from Honk Konk[zippy the pinhead speak]),I liked the turning away from
    human interaction via technology vs. dealing with a serious event in a person’s life on a
    human to human basis. I’m not sure if Twitter
    is the top of the spiral in an overindulgence
    in some people’s social interactions, but this movie made it clear, that Clooney’s character
    hadn’t lost touch with a need to respect a
    sense of humane-ness vs. the young upstart
    erroneously placing profit above it all.

    Personally, after so many years of e-mail communication (not all bad), I’ve come to the point, I really treasure a hand written,
    scribbly letter from a friend.

    This movie for me, was a compass needle,
    wiggling it’s way towards a reminder what
    many still need in our interactions with
    one another.

  • Keith

    (SPOILERS ALERT POST)
    Wasn’t quite sure where Ryan was left at the end of the film. Does he continue to do what he’s done for so long because that is all he really knows at this point? Will he return to what he was? Will be find comfort in it again? If he can settle back into his routine, will be try to get his relationship with Alex going again?

    Part of what was throwing him off was being faced with having to adopt a new lifestyle and it was pushing him out of his comfort zone. If the last line is any indication, Ryan will go back to the way he was. Unless his recent experiences have given him his own wakeup call and he decides to quit and do something different, but the story doesn’t give us any indication of this. As they indicated, a down economy means plenty of business for them.

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