Fired in the sky
Director Jason Reitman follows up his wonderful Juno with Up in the Air, a movie that somehow manages to make corporate downsizing a sentimental and humorous affair. Don’t get me wrong, Reitman’s film has sympathy for those who have lost or will lose their jobs. It’s just that he provides laughter with the pain.
Most of the bittersweet humor in this well-balanced movie is provided by George Clooney as Ryan Bingham. Ryan is a man so afraid of commitment he teaches seminars on how to remain unattached. He also travels the country doing the dirty work of firing people for corporations that don’t want the trouble of looking their employees in the eyes with bad news. He keeps a small apartment in Nebraska, but his main homes are seats on airplanes and multiple hotel rooms. He brandishes his airport and hotel club cards like badges of honor, and longs for the day when he logs 10 million air miles.
Ryan is content with his job and, in a strange way, feels like some sort of good will ambassador when he fires people, because he’s human and he cares—to a certain degree. He’s mastered his rap to the point where one guy getting fired (Zach Galifianakis) asks him whether they will be in touch again. Of course, they won’t.
Then, thanks to the wonders of technology, Ryan’s boss (a droll Jason Bateman) looks to ground him. New face Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has come up with a way to fire people via broadband and satellite, and Ryan will only need a computer camera and his desk chair from now on. Ryan, disgruntled that he will no longer experience the intimacy of face-to-face terminations, is forced to take Natalie on the road to show her the ropes.
Further complicating matters is that Ryan might be falling in love with Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flyer. Alex seems to be on his wavelength, so much so that Alex, when explaining the semantics of their relationship, suggests, “Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” Ryan is intrigued and even winds up inviting her to his sister’s wedding, where his issues with commitment are seriously put to the test.
Reitman’s film is remarkably structured, giving sufficient time to Ryan’s job issues and romantic situations. His time with Natalie is strictly business, and the film has one of its best moments when the duo fires a corporate guy (a blisteringly good J.K. Simmons) who really wanted to be a cook. Simmons has only a few minutes on screen, but he rocks them hard.
Making things almost frighteningly authentic, Reitman hired some real life, recently fired people to serve as extras getting canned by Clooney’s character. Much of what we see from firing victims is real life reactions to dismissals. No, Clooney didn’t really fire them, but Reitman gave them the opportunity to vent feelings about their situations. Now their sentiments are on display in a critically acclaimed film. That’s almost worth getting canned!
Kendricks is excellent as somebody who isn’t as tough and callous as she thinks she is. Her character starts off as icy cold and progresses into somebody who does actually give a rat’s ass. Her airport breakdown is a thing of beauty, and she is forgiven for her participation in the Twilight movies. Farmiga has never been better as a woman who is simply playing a part when she hits the road.
As for Clooney, he has become modern cinema’s master of natural, effortless humor. This isn’t to say he can’t camp it up with the best of them (see O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It’s just to say that he can make you laugh and make it appear like he isn’t even trying. He can also handle the heavy stuff with the best of them. Up in the Air could very well wind up being the movie he is most remembered for a 100 years from now.
Editor’s Note: Due to a last-minute change, Up in the Air is now scheduled to open in Reno on Dec. 23.