Up In the Air

Starring  George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Jason Reitman
Rated M (Coarse language, sexual references and brief nudity). 109 mins.

Voted in December, 2009 as best film by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, this movie is a film adaptation of a novel of the same name written by Walter Kim in 2001.  It is a quality comedy-romance with serious dramatic overtones and tracks a corporate hatchet-man, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), whose job it is to terminate the positions of other corporate employees. Ryan leads a very lonely life. He collects air miles recklessly. Airport personnel represent his family, and his chief goal in life is to achieve 10 million frequent-flyer points. Ryan hates being at home, and in a very special way he lives up to his description as a person who is suffering acutely from terminal loneliness. Clooney’s magnetism and charm help us like someone, who is employed to do mostly miserable things to other people. 

The screen-play for the movie, co-written by Walter Kim, Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, is reflective and comic at the same time and the film attempts to find a balance between comedy and thought-provoking drama. Laughter and sadness mingle together around the main characters in the film that include an independent fellow-air traveller called Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), as Ryan’s casual sex interest, who tries to make sure her air schedules match those of Ryan, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) as an equally independent woman, who wants to move Ryan across to videoconferencing, in a cost-cutting exercise that threatens his personal life-style.

This is a film that is scripted very well. It is something of a modern-day parable of life in economic meltdown where jobs are dispensable, human need is rampant, and holding on to security is hard. It is a smart film that comments thoughtfully on significant social issues such as unemployment, alienation, and the impersonality of technology. It fits very well with the uncertainty of the current economic times, where human distress doesn’t seem to matter at all. The witty dialogue of the film suggests a touch of shallowness to the film, but the movie manages to keep its reflective tone intact, and at times achieves great poignancy. This is largely due to the firm hand of Jason Reitman as director, and the abilities of a splendid cast, that gives memorable portrayals of very vulnerable people.   

The film focuses on Ryan at the crossroads, where he is finally given the opportunity to find meaning in life. Travelling for him has always been an escape from emotional commitment, and he is very used to delivering vacuous motivational speeches to lift up the shattered lives of the about-to-be unemployed. Natalie’s threat to the comforts in his life needs to be managed, but time for Ryan is running out. He is a person awaiting final judgement, and that judgment eventually comes through the relationships he develops with Alex and Natalie. Alex is struggling with finding purpose in life too; both she and Ryan are trying to escape from life’s responsibilities, and they find that their attraction to each other comes too late. Natalie walks out on her job in Ryan’s firm, and lays aside her pipe dreams about how technology can help constructively in the firing of people. She manages to find another position, that has nothing to do with the down- sizing of people’s lives, and it is Ryan who supports her.   

The values up front in this film are reflected in Ryan’s articulated version of his own attitudes and behaviour. In his relationship-free life devoid of any purpose, he has typically hidden his true feelings behind alcohol, and casual sex, but the movie challenges the values he espouses. As Ryan’s life begins to fall apart, the counter-values of commitment, genuine attachment, and meaningful purpose emerge as serious alternatives to his chosen lifestyle.

This is a movie about fractured relationships in modern times, and of people’s attempt to survive them. It offers excellent comedy, drama and romance, and the film’s messages are aided very intelligently by controlled direction, and by two wonderful performances by George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, who play their parts exactly right.

Paramount Pictures. Out January 14, 2010

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting


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