He may only have directed three films, but Jason Reitman has already cast off the shadow of his famous father (Ivan Reitman, the man behind numerous ’80s comedy classics) and staked a claim to be one of the best film makers of his generation.
His follow-up to the Oscar-winning Juno is an adaptation of the novel by Walter Kirn, and if ever a film was made for its time, it’s this one. With its central themes of economic downturn, corporate downsizing and loneliness, Up In The Air could be described as a zeitgeist defining film.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who makes his living by flying around the United States firing employees on behalf of firms who are ‘downsizing’. A man with no roots, he loves the lifestyle of travelling from hotel to hotel and lives only to achieve his dream of 10 million Airmiles, avoiding any emotional connections and dreading the 70 days a year he has to spend in his barely furnished apartment in Omaha.
All that changes when Natalie, a young ‘efficiency expert’, is hired by Bingham’s company with a cost-cutting plan to fire people online. Bingham is charged with showing Natalie the ropes, and her presence, together with that of Alex, a fellow ‘solo traveller’ and the needs of his estranged family all lead him to re-evaluate his priorities in life.
It all sounds horrifically depressing, but Up In The Air is one of the most delightful and uplifting films you’ll see all year. Reitman’s screenplay is packed full of memorable one-liners and skilfully avoids cliches and pat happy endings.
Clooney’s performance is one of the best of his career. The former ER head-wobbling heart-throb has come a long way since Batman & Robin, and is now that rare thing – a movie star and a great actor. His portrayal of Bingham is a marvellously subtle, finely nuanced one, and he has plenty of fun playing on his own playboy image.
Bingham is not a particularly likeable character, but Clooney makes him so by barely suppressing the loneliness that he eventually finds so emotionally crippling. He can convey more in a single glance or wry smile than any number of heartfelt show-stopping speeches. As Alex, Vera Farmiga is a terrific match for him, and this should be a career-making performance for an actress who has hung on the fringes of the big time for too long.
As Natalie, Anna Kendrick is equally terrific, beautifully shedding the hard layer of her character to reveal a young girl well out of her depth. There are also strong cameos from the likes of JK Simmons and Zach Galifianakis, but Reitman’s masterstroke is employing actual people who have been fired – their genuinely human reactions give the film a very poignant depth.
The most satisfying aspect of Up In The Air is its refusal to pander to predictability. Ryan and Alex’s relationship appears to be drifting towards its inevitable conclusion, before Reitman throws a sucker punch that turns the whole film on its head. Similarly, the ending is nicely open to interpretation, making the film rewarding after several viewings.
In an age of 3D blockbusters and empty explosion filled franchises, Up In The Air is proof that nothing tugs on the heartstrings better than a small, touching film about the human condition.