"Up in the Air" makes it look easy. Not just in its casual and apparently effortless excellence, but in its ability to blend entertainment and insight, comedy and poignancy, even drama and reality, things that are difficult by themselves but a whole lot harder in combination. This film does all that and never seems to break a sweat.
Credit for this coup goes to writer-director Jason Reitman, who made Walter Kirn's novel his own, using it as the jumping off point for a bittersweet look at the life and times of a happy road warrior, beautifully played by George Clooney, who willingly spends so much of his life on airplanes that he's not exaggerating when he says "to know me you have to fly with me."
Reitman's previous film as a writer-director was the expertly done "Thank You for Smoking" (he also directed Diablo Cody's "Juno" script), but "Up in the Air," co-written by Sheldon Turner, is a step forward -- both in the way it gets the very best out of actors and in its ability to make things funny without sacrificing honesty and intelligence.
More than that, as Reitman himself has said, in the six years he worked on the script, the filmmaker married, had a child, and changed and matured as a person. When one of his characters says, "life is better with company," we can sense it comes from the heart.
"This is the most personal film I've ever made," Reitman has said, and what that means is that "Up in the Air" has been constructed with an underlying warmth and concern about character and an accompanying understanding of what's of value in life, of what it means to be human in all senses of the word.
Before we even meet our protagonist, "Up in the Air" makes a pair of inspired choices. It plays a hip-hop Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings version of Woody Guthrie's venerable "This Land Is Your Land" over a variety of aerial shots of American landscapes, an offbeat and striking choice that says the things you are about to see are going to shake up your sense of the familiar. It also helps create the film's wonderful air of inclusion, the feeling that we can all happily share in the experience that's about to unfold.
The film's other risky choice involved opening the film with an impeccably chosen gallery of aggrieved people, all of whom have just been fired. Reitman nervily opted to give those roles to non-actors who had recently been terminated in real life, asking them to say what they'd said -- or what they wished they'd said -- when the ax fell. It turned out to be a splendid choice, acknowledging the current economic realities without belaboring or trivializing them.
We see these people because "Up in the Air's" protagonist Ryan Bingham is a corporate hit man who flies around the country firing people for companies who are too timid to do it themselves. If you were to tell this consummate business traveler that he was going to be in a story that did anything but extol his lifestyle he'd think you were hallucinating. For Bingham is a very happy camper, and convincingly so.
Not only does Bingham feel, with some evidence on his side, that he is a humane, compassionate executioner, he also loves the soothing predictability that goes with high-end business travel. At home in airports and on planes the way few people are at home anywhere, he's made a science of security lines and moves cards through optical devices as if scanning was an Olympic sport.
Last year, Bingham tells us, he spent "322 days on the road, 43 miserable days at home," a bachelor apartment in Omaha. His personal grail is reaching the 10-million mile mark on American Airlines (it was 1 million on fictional Great West in the book but that's product placement and inflation for you). Fewer people have done that, he says with no little pride, than have walked on the moon.
Bingham does more than travel light, as a part-time motivational speaker he has a philosophical belief in paring down your life. In a speech he calls "What's in Your Backpack," he argues forcefully for personal minimalism, praising the joys of avoiding commitment, the exhilaration of keeping human relationships at bay.
Reitman has said he wrote Bingham with Clooney in mind, and it was a wise choice. It's hard to think of an actor who's better at projecting the professional smoothness that's essential to make this character palatable, but Clooney turns out to be willing to take that persona further, to be both more real and more vulnerable than his charm-offensive characters are usually allowed to be.
Throwing Bingham off his confident stride is the almost simultaneous arrival of two women with different agendas in different aspects of his life who share the ability to compel him to take the risky path of human interaction.
First up is Alex, a female business traveler who shares Bingham's love for the simulated hospitality and hubristic perks of frequent flying, someone who is so his psychic twin that he finds himself synchronizing schedules with her so they can share steamy airport rendezvous.
Handling Alex as deftly as she handles all her roles is the chameleon-like Vera Farmiga, who goes one-on-one with Clooney with the same brio and confidence that she showed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in "The Departed."
According to his producer (and father), Ivan Reitman, the director insisted on Farmiga for the role even though she was so pregnant when he cast her that she went to her first costume fitting two weeks after giving birth. Still, she handles the part of the sophisticated and confident Alex with such ease that one hopes it will make her as celebrated with the public as she is with the acting community.
If Alex invades Bingham's life in the personal sphere, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) does in the business arena.
A whip smart young numbers cruncher hired by Bingham's boss (a fine Jason Bateman), Keener wants all future firings to be done via video conferencing, and Bingham has to take her on the road with him if he hopes to keep his job. Kendrick, memorable in Jeff Blitz's "Rocket Science," is the film's secret weapon, and her tightly wound character is a comic triumph.
The questions "Up in the Air" gracefully pose while it is thoroughly entertaining us is whether Bingham's minimalism can survive unexpected contact with genuine emotion, and if so what will be the extent of the collateral damage? The answers turn out to be surprisingly complex, a further reason to celebrate a director who, both literally and metaphorically, has filmmaking in his bones.