By :John Latchem | Posted: 05 Mar 2010
The greatest works of literature tend to have an indelible quality rooted in their ability to present a multifaceted story that both entertains and enlightens. Such classics are bound to mean different things to different people, who interpret them as they see fit.
Which brings me to Up in the Air, my favorite movie of 2009. (It takes this position over Inglourious Basterds and The Hangover, two films that had been perched near the top spot for a while.) Jason Reitman’s third directorial outing is easily his best. And when your first two films are as good as Thank You for Smoking and Juno, topping them is no easy feat.
The setup is simple enough. Professional journeyman Ryan Bingham (George Clooney in a classic leading-man performance) is the corporate hatchet man whose company hires him out to downsizing businesses that lack the temerity to fire their own employees. He relishes his time on the road, but his free ride is threatened by up-and-comer Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who proposes using Internet chat services to fire client employees from afar, thus creating huge savings on the travel budget.
As a mosaic of the travel industry, the only other film I would think comes close to capturing the isolation of living in a state of perpetual motion is Fight Club, which of course only touches on those themes before veering in a radically different direction. (One of Up in the Air's deleted scenes echoes Fight Club's theory of the single-serving friend, met on a flight and then forgotten, so I'm glad it didn't make the final cut, lest it invite the inevitable comparisons to the earlier effort.)
Since Ryan is not grounded, he has nothing to hold on to. His only goal seems to be accumulating enough miles on his travel account to earn a mythical elite status, but can such a journey sustain him without anyone to share in it?
To show Natalie the ropes of their industry, she is paired with Ryan for one last road trip. Along the way, Ryan encounters Alex (Vera Farmiga), another wayward traveler who appears to be a female version of himself.
The arrangement gives Ryan a chance to learn how to care for others, and Natalie a chance to learn about life. After all, life is better with someone to share the experience, right?
Ryan seems more comfortable in the artificial hospitality created by the travel industry to put its customers at ease, which probably forms the core of his personality, letting him remain charming and persuasive as he’s tearing people from their livelihood without a second thought.
In one discussion I had about this film, I suggested that Ryan was a metaphor for the Grim Reaper, given a chance at life only to be forced to understand his own tragic role in the cosmic ballet. The comparison was met with some skepticism, but consider this pitch Ryan makes when describing the essence of his job to Natalie:
“We are here to make limbo tolerable. To ferry wounded souls across the river of dread and to a point where hope is dimly visible. And then we stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.”
Up in the Air is as much about the idea of its characters as it is a story of their lives. The film lets viewers project their own traits onto whichever parts of the film with which they most identify, raising questions but never providing the hard answers. Like great literature, Up in the Air has so many layers you can watch it multiple times and achieve a different experience with each viewing that is just as fulfilling as the last.
Is it a movie about people on the road? Is it a tragedy about a lost soul or a positive message about embracing who you are? Is it about Ryan and his slow emergence from a self-imposed banishment from the real world? Do you follow Natalie as she comes to the realization that life is more than theories and routines? Is it a treatise on the nature of feminism in the career cycle? Is it a buddy movie in which Ryan and Natalie can learn from each other about the holes in their lives? Is it an examination of the role our careers and families play in defining us? Is it an expression of the importance loved ones play in filling the voids of life's shortcomings? Is it the story of harsh economic realities and the people who nonetheless can take advantage of the system? Is it about a quest that is ultimately meaningless? Is it a warning about the dangers of fantasy escapism? Or do you see it as a parable about a world that has ironically grown more isolated despite the technological innovations that should keep us more connected?
Up in the Air is all these things and more, tightly wrapped in a tidy package at under two hours. So many moving parts, yet under Reitman’s skilled guidance they all manage to come together perfectly. At a time when far too many films try to be about a state of being and forget to tell a story, it’s refreshing to see a movie such as Up in the Air that reminds us it’s possible to do both. While individual scenes may lack the bravura of sequences from Inglourious Basterds or The Hurt Locker, the totality of purpose that Reitman has carved from Walter Kirn's original novel delivers more than enough substance to compensate.
Even the extras on the DVD and Blu-ray add something to the equation. The deleted scenes are so good they play like short films based on the movie, adding character depth and additional meaning. (To see all the deleted scenes you have to get the Blu-ray version. The DVD has only about half of them.)
Up in the Air hits DVD and Blu-ray Disc March 9 from Paramount Home Entertainment. Be sure to check it out.