The timely odyssey of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer and consummate modern business traveler who, after years of staying happily airborne, suddenly finds himself ready to make a real connection.
Ryan has long been contented with his unencumbered lifestyle lived out across America in airports, hotels and rental cars. He can carry all he needs in one wheel-away case; he's a pampered, elite member of every travel loyalty program in existence; and he's close to attaining his lifetime goal of 10 million frequent flier miles—and yet... Ryan has nothing real to hold onto.
When he falls for a simpatico fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga), Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman), inspired by a young, upstart efficiency expert (Anna Kendrick), threatens to permanently call him in from the road. Faced with the prospect, at once terrifying and exhilarating, of being grounded, Ryan begins to contemplate what it might actually mean to have a home.
"Like father, like son" is an old saying that often rings true, but not so much when you look at the movies of Ivan Reitman and his chip-off-the-old-block Jason. The two may share the same genes and a striking physical resemblance, but creatively they're worlds apart. I must admit, I've never been a huge fan of the elder Reitman. Oh sure, I enjoyed 'Ghostbusters,' got a kick out of 'Evolution,' and fell in love with arguably his best film, 'Dave.' (I even hold a soft spot for the endearing summer camp comedy, 'Meatballs.') But most of Ivan's film canon doesn't possess much depth, and some of it – like 'Legal Eagles' and 'Six Days Seven Nights' – is downright vapid.
Jason, on the other hand, though still young and certain to one day spawn his own share of turkeys, is steadily amassing a stellar body of work that's garnering well-deserved critical and popular acclaim…and sending many of his fellow budding directors into jealous conniptions. His maturity, keen insights, and adroit storytelling ability belie his tender age, as does his knack for finding nuggets of sober truth within a quirky comedic structure. Jason's films brim with heart and, more importantly, soul, and are populated by dimensional characters that both surprise and delight. 'Thank You for Smoking' proved to be an auspicious debut, and 'Juno,' buoyed by several Academy Award nominations including one for Best Director, quickly lofted the younger Reitman to A-level status. But instead of using his clout to court big-budget blockbusters, Jason has stayed true to himself and his craft, and continues to do what he does best – small-focus, character-driven comedy-dramas that make quiet but potent statements about the oh-so-fragile human condition.
'Up in the Air' may be a shade darker than Reitman's previous pictures, leaving a bittersweet taste and some lingering issues to ponder, but it flaunts all the elements that distinguish the young director's style – classy yet unpretentious presentation, nuanced acting, and a literate script that effortlessly weaves together humor and heartache. And in this bumpy economic climate punctuated by sky-high unemployment, the film carries additional weight and strikes a tender nerve, as people with supposedly rock-solid futures suddenly find themselves adrift, their lives literally up in the air, with little to count on, lean on, or believe in.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is the man who causes all that strife and soul-searching. Chickenshit executives hire him to do their dirty work when it comes time to "let go" an employee, sending him across the country and around the world to absorb the anger, tears, outrage, threats, and suicidal musings of the professionally terminated. Ryan also makes a tidy sum as a motivational speaker, urging people to empty their personal backpacks of all the physical, material, and spiritual clutter weighing them down. It's a hectic, exhausting, card-swiping existence, but he thrives on it, "living between the margins of his itineraries," until two women bring some turbulence to his high-flying life. Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar one evening, and their torrid one-night stand evolves into a more serious affair, while efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) tags along with Ryan on one last whirlwind tour to learn the tricks of his trade so his company can begin the lovely practice of firing people via webcam. Soon to be grounded and facing an endless string of tedious days at the Omaha home office, Ryan begins to realize he's just as aimless as the people he cuts loose, and needs some personal grounding to lend his life balance and meaning.
Seamlessly blending wry comedy with introspective drama, 'Up in the Air' paints a perceptive portrait of our impersonal culture and how our increasing self-absorption and disregard for the value and contributions of others spawns isolation and melancholy. It's also about relationships and how they shape and define us. Though our lives may revolve around our work, the people with whom we connect and share – be they lovers, spouses, friends, kids, or siblings – matter far more than money, stature, material possessions, or a membership in the 10,000,000-mile club. We all may be up in the air physically, emotionally, and/or professionally, but it's our relationships – if we're lucky enough to have them – that bring us down to earth.
There's not a lot of tangible plot to 'Up in the Air,' but the well-drawn characters and intelligent dialogue easily sustain the thin narrative thread. Though not a flashy film, this adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel flaunts enough visual panache to engage the eye and immerse us in Ryan's topsy-turvy world. Reitman's fluid technique holds our interest, and the understated tone allows us to reflect on character tics and resonating moments throughout. (In addition to nabbing another Oscar nod for Best Director, Reitman also vied for the Best Adapted Screenplay award with co-writer Sheldon Turner and, as one of the film's producers, the Best Picture honor with, among others, his dad.) In an inspired move, actual workers portray the various employees Ryan cans, and their authentic reflections widen the movie's perspective.
For years, Clooney has masterfully merged movie star magnetism with an unaffected acting style to become one of the true Hollywood icons of our generation. Here, he excels in a tailor-made role that exploits his sardonic wit, easygoing manner, and Cary Grant charm. Ryan keeps a tight rein on his emotions, and Clooney's nicely shaded portrayal exposes just enough vulnerability to engender sympathy and win our affection. His progression from slick corporate mouthpiece to lost, humbled soul is measured and believable, and without a doubt he deserved his Oscar nomination.
And the two women who support him deserved theirs as well. Farmiga follows up excellent turns in 'The Departed' and 'Orphan' with another finely etched performance that's smart, sexy, and a bit mysterious, and her intimate rapport with Clooney helps draw us deep into the story. While Farmiga's top-flight work is no surprise, 'Twilight' alum Kendrick files a breakout portrayal marked by fresh-faced allure and a natural comedic flair. As the green trainee under Ryan's tutelage, she learns a few lessons herself, and teaches him far more than he initially realizes. Jason Bateman makes another strong impression as Clooney's callous boss, and in brief cameos as terminated employees, Reitman regular J.K. Simmons and the always hilarious Zach Galifianakis add a jolt of manic energy to the proceedings.
'Up in the Air' is definitely one of the finest films of 2009, and though it may not be weighty enough to become a classic, this perceptive, engaging tale will always provide a timeless snapshot of a difficult, transitional period in our country's history, and its warmth, humor, and heart will make it a pleasure to revisit in the good and bad times to come.
Fans of eye candy won't be bowled over by the 'Up in the Air' transfer, for this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort from Paramount sports a decidedly earthbound feel, yet it accurately represents Reitman's quiet, intimate film and maintains a distinct celluloid look. A fair amount of texture graces the image, adding warmth and gravity to the story without looking grainy or distracting from the on-screen action. Clarity is excellent, with fabric and facial details always sharp and vibrant, and background objects easily discernible, even in dimly lit scenes. Contrast appears slightly muted, as does the color palette, which reflects the dull, ordered routine of Ryan's life. Men in navy suits, women in conservative business attire, drab office interiors, and utilitarian hotel rooms don't provide much opportunity for lush color saturation or breathtaking imagery, but all are well rendered, and an occasional exterior shot offers a glimpse of fertile green lawns and deep blue skies. Black levels exude a nice richness and fleshtones, aside from a few instances in which Clooney's skin exudes an orangey glow, look natural and balanced.
As one would expect from such a recent release, the print is pristine and exhibits no signs of wear. A few instances of edge enhancement caught my eye, but the offenses were hardly egregious, and no digital noise or other processing issues afflict this top-notch transfer, which provides a seamless, immersive viewing experience.
There's not much ear candy either on the 'Up in the Air' soundtrack, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix remains anchored in the front spectrum for most of the film. Surround activity is limited at best, and you really need to prick up your ears to pick out any ambient bleed or subwoofer activity. Yet the fact that it's not a dazzler doesn't mean this track is deficient in any way. On the contrary, it provides consistently crisp, well-modulated audio that never sounds sweetened and falls well within the story's parameters. Dialogue, of course, remains the number one priority throughout, and exchanges are always clear and easy to understand, while the subtle music score by Rolfe Kent delicately enhances the mood without calling undue attention to itself.
Would I have preferred a more active track? Yes… and no. A few more bells and whistles might have punched up a few scenes, but sound that doesn't fit the flow or match a film's emotional vibe only takes the viewer out of the story, and for a movie like 'Up in the Air,' such extraneous noise would have been a misguided indulgence. What this track does, it does well, and in this case that's enough.
There's a good deal of material here, but none of it is very substantive. The deleted scenes, however, definitely deserve a look.
'Up in the Air' combines a topical story, intelligent script, excellent performances, and sensitive direction to produce one of the finest all-around films of 2009. Its natural feel, subtle, unforced humor, and big heart leave a lasting impression, and its nuanced presentation resonates even more strongly on a second viewing. Strong video and audio transfers draw us into the intimate tale, and a decent set of supplements enhance the disc. Highly recommended.