So much for going to the movies to escape. “Up in the Air” is a film that lives and breathes in the now, placing the palm of its hand on middle America’s tender, throbbing heart. Its very existence is proof that Hollywood has not yet lost touch with the moviegoers who fuel its booming industry. This movie makes us believe George Clooney’s professional downsizer actually exists in the same world as the real-life, recently laid-off people who appear in interspersed footage.
“Up in the Air”
At the Michigan, Quality 16 and Showcase
What “Up in the Air” actually says about how we live our lives in the 21st century — and whether today’s jobless masses care what million-dollar names Clooney and director Jason Reitman (“Juno”) think about them — is up for debate. But in many ways, that’s the mark of a truly excellent movie: It inspires those kinds of debates. It makes you envision yourself, your family and your closest friends up there on the mile-high screen, and it makes you stop and wonder: Where do we go from here?
In Clooney’s case, his destination is right there in the title. He plays Ryan Bingham, a seemingly self-sufficient man whose job is to fly around the country laying off people he has never met, from companies for which he has never worked. It’s a cold line of work, but refreshingly, Bingham isn’t a cold guy. He’s genuinely charming and personable in that George Clooney way, and he cares about the employees he’s firing, too — at least as much as his job will allow. When a young upstart named Natalie (Anna Kendrick, “New Moon”) tries to push a layoffs-through-teleconferencing system to save their corporation in travel costs, Bingham fights to maintain what he sees as the integrity of the face-to-face conversation, which, while still heartless, is at least heartless in a heartfelt way.
Bingham also enters a flirty, tentative relationship with Alex (Vera Farmiga, “Orphan”), a fellow frequent flyer who seems just as casually adrift as he is. They share a kinship, though as Bingham makes clear in his business conference talks, he doesn’t believe in marriage, families or the concept of “settling down.” About the only thing he’s driven to do is earn the magic 10-million miles on his American Airlines card and the perks that come with it. Why? Well, because he’s close to the total, and everyone needs something to shoot for.
As Bingham and Natalie float like ghosts through terminals and Hilton hotels, they wonder to each other and themselves what the point of it all is. They sever the lifelines of employees who have put everything into an idealized notion of the Great American Dream that no longer exists.
In brief cameos, J.K. Simmons (“Extract”) and Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover”) may have the most important roles in the film. They’re the embodiment of the people whose stories never get told in Hollywood. After all, there’s nothing fancy or elegant about losing your job while trying to provide for a family with no foreseeable options in the future.
In its own serio-comic way, “Up in the Air” might be one of the most depressing movies to come along in a while. There are scenes filmed in Detroit that will hit a little too close to home for many local viewers. But that’s the point: The movie is close to home. It asks what the ideas of home and security mean to different people today — a theme especially resonant when Bingham attends his sister’s wedding late in the film.
Throughout, with rarely an emotional misstep, director Reitman throws away the razor wit and cynicism that acted as smokescreens in his first feature films “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno.” Instead, he grants “Up in the Air” a vulnerability that allows it to function as a time capsule of our current economic and ideological crossroads. Watching the movie as a blissfully-uncertain-about-the-future college student is a bittersweet reminder that, sooner or later, everyone has to come down from the clouds.