DVD of the Week – Review of Up in the Air (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
The hero of writer-director Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is Ryan Bingham, a man whose job description is firing people. His customers are companies that are too craven to fire their own employees. Since cravenness knows no geographic boundaries he spends much of his time literally up in the air, flying around the country from one job to the next. Figuratively speaking, the lives of the people he fires are left up in the air by his visits. For his part, Ryan loves his job because it dovetails with his philosophy of “life is movement, movement is life;” he aspires to be perpetually up in the air, in both the literal and figurative senses.
Ryan is played by George Clooney. The women in his life are played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. Farmiga is Alex, a fellow traveler (and fellow-traveler) he conducts an affair with; they have their trysts in far-flung airport cities. Kendrick is Natalie, a new employee at Ryan’s company with a grand plan to make the terminator-for-hire business even more impersonal. She becomes Ryan’s protege and in an awkward, inter-generational way, his friend. (In a breath of fresh air, there is not even a hint of romance between them.)
All three actors received well-deserved Academy Award nominations, as did Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner’s screenplay, which was adapted from a novel by Walter Kim. Up in the Air was also nominated for best picture and Reitman for directing. It is a funny and charming movie with broad audience appeal. So much so that it is easy to underestimate the seriousness of its themes and the skill with which it was made. In that respect, the film echoes its subject.
Fairly early on Ryan begins to mentor Natalie by showing her the frequent flier ropes. She is outraged by his teachings about choosing the right security line, e.g., don’t get behind old people, they don’t appreciate how little time they have left; do get behind Asians, they have a thing for slip-on shoes. His answer to her outrage: “I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster.” The scene is played for laughs and it is very funny (it even made the trailer). We can laugh at it so readily in part because we’re comfortable that we’re not like that ourselves- until the point we realize that we’ve been making exactly those sorts of easy, superficial judgments of the characters.
The film is very adroit in leading us into this trap of our own making. For one thing, accepting a character’s self-assessment, or the persona they have created for public consumption, at face value is the easy thing to do. Ryan initially believes he’s a shallow person and content to be that way, and we go along with it for a long time. Maybe even as long as he does himself. (Watch the film to find out how the two women shake out.) For another, we’re easily misled into discounting the message based on the manner of its delivery.
One of Ryan’s good points is that he is without pretense; he is a fundamentally honest person. When he tells a man who has just lost his job that this is an opportunity and a beginning, it’s easy to discount his words because they’re glib and practiced. Yet, the fact Ryan says them easily and has said them before doesn’t mean they aren’t true, or that he doesn’t believe them. Likewise “movement is life” isn’t just a catchphrase or convenient rationale for avoiding commitment. When he realizes he needs to do something, he does it immediately, without hesitating. His character arc is to recognize his own opportunity, and to start the process of transforming aimless drift to purposeful movement.
Other new releases this week: The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Capitalism: A Love Story, Evangelion 1.11: You Are Not Alone, Old Dogs, Planet 51, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, The Stoning of Soraya M