by Craig Kennedy
Endings are a killer. They can make a good movie great or they can make a good movie bad. For most of its running time, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kern’s novel Up in the Air is a good movie. It purrs along competently and professionally, entertaining while never surprising or offending. Like its star George Clooney, it is slick, good-looking and mostly flawless, but for a while it goes down a little too easily and it flirts with being disposable. Just when it threatens dissolve into a vapor of likeability however, the film sticks its landing like an Olympic gymnast who saves his most difficult routine for last. With an ending that strikes the perfect note and feels decidedly “right,” Up in the Air in its closing moments is transformed from a good film into a memorable one.
George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a man also concerned with endings. In this case, they’re the endings of careers. As an axe man hired by cowardly bosses to perform the dirty work of informing employees that their services will no longer be needed, he has a firm but gentle manner and a knack for convincing his subjects that the worst moment in their lives might also be an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time his assurances minimize lawsuits and blowback from disgruntled former employees. This is why his services are in demand all over the country.
A lone wolf, Bingham likes to keep his baggage (material, personal and emotional) small enough to fit into an organized and easily stowed carry-on suitcase. Reducing his possessions and commitments to a minimum, he’s constantly in motion, viewing the world from the comfortable remove of an airplane window flying at 10,000 feet. It’s a vantage from which one city looks the same as the next. Locked into a routine that moves him from airport, to hotel bar, to comfortably-but-generically-appointed hotel suite and back again, his home is everywhere and yet nowhere.
For such a successful man, Bingham’s life goal is a surprisingly mundane one: to be only the 7th man in the history of air travel to reach 10 million frequent flier miles and to reap the rewards for his loyalty. This is a middle-aged man stuck in an emotional limbo whose only measuring stick for success is how far he’s traveled. Where he goes or where he’s coming from doesn’t matter. Though he thinks he has life all mapped out, in fact he’s on the verge of an accelerating existential crisis that will leave him shaken and questioning his master plan.
First he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a sexy kindred spirit traveling the country, living anonymously and keeping complications and obligations to a minimum. They understand each other, the sex is great and suddenly flying solo seems a lot less interesting.
Next, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) storms into his life, a young, fresh-faced and eager co-worker with a lot of big ideas on how to depersonalize, streamline and ultimately reduce the costs of the job he performs. Smart enough to realize that Keener’s path leads to his own obsolescence and unable to see this as an opportunity (in the way he counsels his subjects to approach their fate), he balks. Nevertheless, he agrees to take Keener under his wing and show her the ropes in the hope he can prove to his bosses the job requires a personal touch – ironic that a man so adverse to the personal in his private life is so good at it and dependent upon it professionally.
As you’d expect, Bingham teaches Natalie a few things and Natalie surprises him with some wisdom of her own. Meanwhile there is plenty of sparkle and chemistry between Bingham and Alex, though they never quite approach the palpable and molten sexual energy Clooney stirred up with Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. The thing is, to this point Up in the Air is little more than agreeably entertaining. It doesn’t make any missteps, but it’s too smooth by half and it runs a real danger of becoming bland. It has the phony swagger of a film that knows what it’s doing, but lacks the confidence to take any real chances. It is watchable without being remarkable.
To his credit, Clooney anchors the film during this stretch with his charm and his gift for slightly self-effacing humor that can never be mistaken for a lack of confidence. At the same time, there are the fissures of unspoken self-doubt surrounding his every action and they grow as the film progresses. There’s a great scene where Clooney reveals the wounded and vulnerable human being under Bingham’s protective shell. It’s effective in part because it runs counter to the smooth celebrity persona Clooney has cultivated over the years and it’s a reminder that the man has depths he’s not always given credit for. Think of his haunted, empty look during the closing moments of Michael Clayton or pretty much his entire performance in Soderbergh’s underrated Solaris.
Vera Farmiga is funny and sexy as Alex and she’s a fine sparring partner with Clooney, but that’s pretty much all she’s ever allowed to be. Instead, the big surprise of the film is Anna Kendrick as Natalie. The relative newcomer of the cast, her character runs the risk of clich√©. She could easily have slipped into the stereotypical, buzz-kill shrew/foil to Clooney’s efficient charisma machine, but she brings a real energy and an empathetic vulnerability to Natalie that balances the film nicely. If Clooney is the smooth guiding hand, Kendrick is the wild card and the spark that keeps the film moving through its early and middle stretches.
Though Up in the Air spends its first 3/4s playing it safe, that’s not to say it’s bad. The performances are excellent. It’s funny, it’s entertaining and it’s even occasionally heartfelt. Part way through there’s a scene with the great J.K. Simmons (Burn After Reading) as the man getting fired. It’s one of a number of celebrity cameo firings, but it is particularly strong. Humorous and sharp yet ultimately moving and bittersweet, it encapsulates perfectly everything the film is trying to be. Whether Up in the Air will live up to that promise remains unclear however until near the very end. That’s when it surprises you and reveals a gravitas it had only hinted at before. It’s not a big twist or a major shock. It’s not even entirely unexpected, but to say more about it would ruin the effect for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie.
While it isn’t the best movie of the year, it is a very nearly effortless and always engaging one. The ending and the way it taps into the unique zeitgeist of our times set it apart from the usual comedy-drama. Refreshingly adult, it pushes emotional buttons without feeling calculated or manipulative. It is dignified without being stodgy; a smart film yet still playful. With Clooney in top form and a stand-up-and-take-notice performance from Kendrick, Up in the Air is easily director Reitman’s strongest and most self-assured film to date. Hopefully it is a harbinger of good things to come.