Sometimes a movie lands (pardon the pun) at the right time. If you had told me that a movie about a guy looking to earn 10,000,000 frequent flyer miles in first class would be arguably one of the most interesting explorations of the recession that Hollywood would offer, I would have laughed in your face. But, against all odds, it works. That the guy in question is George Clooney and the man behind the camera is Jason Reitman undoubtedly helps.
There’s a point of the movie when it seems like it’s settling into a landing pattern. Everybody has done just about everything they have to do to advance the coming-of-age drama and romantic comedy angles of the plot. The movie has emerged much more conventional than it initially appeared to be – the hypocrisy of Ryan’s high-flying lifestyle had been revealed as the sham we all knew it to be, the little girl had all grown up. I have to admit it lulled me into a false sense of security. I wondered if the movie would end at that point, wrapped up in a neat little bow. Maybe the quirky enthusiasm of the first hour was a facade constructed to hide a solidly traditional core.
I was wrong.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The movie follows Ryan, who essentially fires people for a living, as he tours across the country in executive class travel and aspires to become the seventh person ever to fly 10,000,000 miles. He gives seminars on how the things that most people associate with ‘life’ – family, friends, a house, a car – weigh you down. Living free and easy on the road (or in the sky), Ryan has boarding down to a routine. One of the best scenes of the movie demonstrates how smooth and organised his trips are – populated with routine, like a familiar dance.
He has a tiny flat in Omaha, with a next door neighbor he casually fools around with – until he comes back to find that she’s now dating. He has a family in Milwaukee, but he hasn’t even met his sister’s husband-to-be. Despite the fact that constant movement gives the illusion of stopping or slowing time, the world below him is moving and rotating.
As he travels from place to place firing employees from companies too scared to do it themselves, Ryan finds the ultimate slap in the face waiting for him at the office. The company plans to introduce virtual firing – staff will never have to leave the office again. No more flights and expenses. He has effectively been made redundant. He’s a dinosaur. Which is itself a contradiction, because Ryan is actually little more than a kid. He never grew up. Instead of flying to neverland, he was flying from coast-to-coast. At this point, two women enter his life. The ambitious young Natalie, the barely-out-of-college kid who designed the system which renders him useless, and Alex, a fellow road (or sky) warrior who shares his free-wheeling ideology.
I remarked at the start that the movie deals with the recession. It doesn’t really tackle it head on. In the words of a fellow Best Picture nominee, for Ryan’s termination sub-contractors “business is a-boomin’“. But it soaks through every frame of the movie. It a nice, relatively indirect way of dealing with the subject matter – and the film doesn’t really pull any punches when it comes to nature of Clooney’s job. Much like Ryan’s method, it adopts a respectful and honest distance as it observes those stuck in the awful situation (admittedly moreso as the film progresses).
Up in the Air merits comparison with Reitman’s previous Oscar-nominated work, Juno, as a coming of age story. The movie distracts us with the idea of Ryan showing young Natalie the ropes, so to speak. However, it’s really the story of Ryan trying – and not always succeeding – at growing up. Clooney makes Ryan a wonder character drawn from what could be a shallow parody. His description sounds like a stereotype, his philosophy sounds like a cliche, but Clooney gives us a man in middle age who has nothing to ground him. To use the films aquatic motif, he’s adrift. You can use the fancy phrasing that he uses to justify his job, but that’s the cold reality.
Up in the Air is a great film. Being honest, I think I’ll need to see it again to be entirely sure of how great it is, but’s certainly deserving of its Oscar nomination. It’s not really a comedy so much as a comic drama, but a well-written and performed one with – as appears to be Reitman’s style (admittedly only based on two films) – a solid heart at its centre. It’s honest rather than idealistic, but still a little bit optimistic – it would be heart-breaking were it entirely tragic.
There’s no reason to be up in the air about this film, it’s well worth a look.