My opinion often shifts on reflection. I think it’s important to acknowledge an initial experience—that immediate, visceral reaction—but as meaningful as that is, it’s not the only thing that matters. No doubt some cynics believe that those who don’t hold onto their first opinion are just allowing others to influence them—and certainly that’s part of it, though it needn’t be a bad thing—but I think the process of evaluating how one feels about something is more complicated than that. It takes time, and in that time, the ground inevitable shifts, sometimes merely settling, othertimes shaking cataclysmically.
Up in the Air hasn’t suffered a cataclysmic reversal, but it definitely has fallen in my estimation the longer I’ve thought about it, sorting through what I liked and what I didn’t, sifting through irrelevant personal tangents and more meaningful critiques. I’ve rewritten this damn introduction multiple times, to the point where it seemed dishonest not to acknowledge that I’ve done so. And in the end, the movie just doesn’t sit right with me.
Based on Walter Kirn’s novel (which had the misfortune of debuting in 2001 just a few months before September 11 destroyed whatever last shreds of romance still lingered around air travel), Up in the Air stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a proud frequent flier who fires people for a living. His company sends him crisscrossing the country nonstop to step in for employers who, for whatever reason, don’t want the heartache and hassle of firing people themselves. Ryan’s good at his job, and he loves the freedom and isolation of his vagabond lifestyle, so he’s horrified by the proposals of his new colleague, Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick). Fresh-faced and ambitious, Natalie thinks that their industry is overburdened by traveling costs and that firings should be held not in person but through video conferencing. Their boss (Jason Bateman) likes the scheme but sends Natalie out on a few traditional jobs with Ryan so that she can learn the ropes. Saddled with Natalie—and further unsettled by his younger sister’s impending marriage and, perhaps, by his deepening feelings for his favorite fuck buddy, Alex (Vera Farmiga), another extremely frequent flier—Ryan gradually realizes that he might not be as happy as he previously thought.
So that’s the premise, but honestly, ascribing a plot to Up in the Air feels a bit misleading as it’s less plot-driven than character-driven. Yet that description, too, feels wrong because it implies more nuance than the movie actually has. The whole thing is uncomfortably schematic, with only Ryan emerging as a fully realized human being. Take Natalie, for example. Kendrick has won a great deal of acclaim for her performance, but her character never really comes together for me. For someone who’s supposed to be smart and savvy, a golden girl who shines at whatever she does, Natalie is remarkably obtuse and tactless—which doesn’t make sense until you realize that the screenplay needs her to blunder about, to a ludicrous degree, to better reveal Ryan’s character. Natalie isn’t a human being; she’s a foil.
That’s not to say that Kendrick gives a bad performance. She avoids playing Natalie in a cutesy way, instead giving her an awkward brittleness, which is surprisingly novel, not to mention funny, but that alone can’t flesh out the character. Farmiga accomplishes a bit more with her underdeveloped character, and she and Clooney have great chemistry together, but she, too, deserves more to work with. It’s frustrating to watch two talented actresses repeatedly butt up against the limitations of the screenplay.
Even more frustrating, though, are cowriter Jason Reitman’s gimmicky tendencies as a director. I wasn’t a fan of Reitman’s starmaking directorial turn, Juno, but I have a soft spot for Thank You for Smoking, his adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s satiric novel, so it’s not like I hate the guy. He definitely gravitates toward interesting material, and his glossy style, reveling in visual irony, can be quite charming. The tight, quick shots of Ryan’s suitcase, for example, are a chic way to illustrate the man’s willful rootlessness, and the scene in which Natalie realizes that her teleconference firee is actually in the next room is admirably quiet. When he chooses to be sincere instead of arch, Reitman demonstrates a beautiful sense of timing, letting the emotion of the moment resonate for a perfect beat.
But the showy use of real people to play those Ryan and Natalie fire is not only crass; it grinds the storytelling to a halt. Even if you don’t know that Reitman invited nonactors to describe their experiences being laid off under false pretenses (they were told they were speaking to the camera as part of a documentary), surely you have to feel the way those monologues don’t fit the rest of the movie. Suddenly you are seeing shots that are lit differently, framed differently, and you never see Ryan or Natalie interacting with their ostensible partners in conversation or even appearing in the same shot. It’s bizarre.
And if you do know what Reitman has done, it’s even more jarring—especially when recognizable victims show up (J. K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis), and you think, Oh, these aren’t real people, these are fake people, so something’s actually going to happen now because they got actors to play the part. In other words, Reitman’s stunt is a distraction, pushing viewers out of getting caught up in the story by calling attention to that story’s artificiality.
And worst of all, the stories of the firees are beside the point of the movie. Up in the Air is not about what it’s like to be fired. It’s not even about what it’s like to fire people. Despite the filmmakers’ eagerness to capture the zeitgeist, to make this into a Movie About the Way Things Are Today (a frame that, predictably, too many pundits have bought into to), Up in the Air needn’t have been tied to any particular time. It’s themes are more universal: it’s about the pleasure and pain of human connection, the advantages and disadvantages of allowing yourself to be tied to another person. The traumas of the real people whom Reitman parades across the screen have little to do with Ryan’s narrative arc.
That narrative arc still resonates, but I’m inclined to give the vast majority of the credit to Clooney. He’s been a charismatic screen presence for years, of course, but between this and Michael Clayton, the late-blooming actor has revealed new subtleties, new shadings, new emotional complexities. In Up in the Air, he nurtures ambiguities that the movie itself tends to trample in its eagerness to spell out the moral of the story.
The odd thing, though, is that after the carefully diagrammed conflicts resolve themselves in all the inevitable ways, after the moral has been plainly laid out, Up in the Air suddenly embraces the ambiguity. Its final scene is beautifully restrained, open to interpretation. I walked out of the theater thinking about that moment and how I felt about it, turning it over in mind. The rest of the movie didn’t inspire me like that, but at the end, at least, Reitman trusted his audience enough to set his bludgeon aside.