Published Mar 24, 2013It's surprising when any film, let alone a crowd-pleaser anchored by Hollywood's beloved silver fox, succeeds in being scathing and smart, touching and melancholic, insightful and entertaining. Up in the Air, Jason Reitman's third feature film, manages to straddle comedy and drama with ease, thanks in no small part to a stellar cast, a superb script and splendid cinematography.
Ryan Bingham (the unexpectedly first-rate George Clooney), a frequent flier whose mission is to reach ten million frequent flyer miles as he travels across the country doing the dirty work for corporations too cowardly to let their own employees go, travels light. His home is even less homey than the hotels he predominantly sleeps in. Bingham isn't heartless—he sympathizes, lowers his voice to an appropriately dignified volume, gives rousing speeches about doing what you love—but he convinces himself that a job's a job, and his provides status, isolation and power, all of which appeal. So, he fulfills his responsibilities without consternation.
He's friendly and approachable, but emotionally detached. "The slower we move, the faster we die," he notes. So, it's fitting that his closest relationship seems to be with a female version of himself (the impeccable Vera Farmiga), a fellow business traveler who relishes the perks, and has streamlined the hassles, of frequent travel.
Bingham makes a comfortable life out of doing uncomfortable work. Things change though when his happily nomadic life is threatened to be grounded: young upstart Natalie's (Anna Kendrick) proposal that his company go virtual, turning costly travel jobs like his into more affordable (re: profitable) desk ones, puts his lifestyle and his identity at risk.
Comedy is often a smart way to discuss serious issues—in this case, the ugly realities associated with the ongoing financial downturn provide a backdrop to discuss displacement, workaholism, intimacy, metaphysics and mortality. Up in the Air is a sharply funny film with a lot to say. Its pun-inspired tagline—"The story of a man ready to make a connection."—provides a pithy synopsis.
It's easy to dedicate yourself to work, to gravitate towards the signifiers of success and status, all while recognizing that meaning and fulfillment often come from the parts of life that have little to do with employment. Bingham's career gives his life purpose, but at what cost? As the protagonist delicately winds his way towards recognizing what's missing in his life, and attempts to get it, he encounters loss and gains understanding: while we will all die alone, it's good to live life with company.
Up in the Air screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Science on Film screening series at 7pm on March 27, 2013. Toronto Clinical Psychologist Dr. Katy Kamkar will be in attendance to discuss travel displacement and the psychology of workaholics. (Paramount)