Friday, February 5, 2010

Film Review: "Up in the Air"

When asked for an opinion on air travel, the average person might respond somewhere between flaming disdain, placid enjoyment or subdued indifference. The long hours, cramped spaces and miniscule food selection generally seem to turn people off and rarely generate any sort of excitement.

Not Ryan Bingham. On the contrary, Bingham feels more at home in the air than in any one place he’s ever called home. He prefers hotel rooms to home, frequent flier miles to friend, and practically “doesn’t exist” to his family, in the words of his own sister.

Bingham works for a company that sends him all over the country doing the dirty work of bosses that don’t want to do their own firing, or, letting go, as the rehearsed line goes. He “makes limbo more bearable,” he tells a coworker.

Bingham insists that his job is to help people transition; he’s supposed to be their shoulder to cry on once the deed is done. This, he insists, is the benefit of firing in person. Dignity. Funny thing is Bingham never sticks around long enough to be of that much use to his clients or to anyone else

The idea of internet firing, a more efficient and cost-effective method, is proposed by an ambitious young college grad, Natalie, who presents a driven if not na├»ve and slightly cold approach to taking away peoples’ livelihoods.

This new approach not only threatens Bingham’s entire way of life but earns Natalie a round-country trip with Bingham to witness his work and life philosophy. Both have their agendas resisted and eyes opened in the most unlikely ways, including from a fiery blonde business woman named Alex whose philosophy may actually be worse than Bingham’s.

Writer/director Jason Reitman has created an understatedly realistic portrayal of relationships between three incredibly genuine (if not always honest) characters, making this film easy not only to enjoy but to get lost in. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in one of these people, or somewhere between all three.

The humorous and often painfully ironic screenplay teamed with the marvelous performances of the three lead actors are the key to its success. The scenes alter between hilarious, touching and heart-wrenching, all strung together with the stories of how these people affect each other.

George Clooney’s embodiment of Bingham was a refreshing contrast to his superstar roles. The honesty and vulnerability of his performance invites a likability that encourages us to bear with him.

Anna Kendrick is electric as the bright-eyed ambitious youngster Natalie with agonizing ups and downs. She provides wonderful contrast to Clooney’s character and both are perfect vehicles for forcing the other to see things differently.

Not until Bingham witnesses Natalie’s sorrowfully sympathetic reactions to face-to-face firing does he really start caring about making people feel better, Natalie included. Not until Natalie has to live in Bingham’s world does she realize that maybe there is some dignity in the face-to-face. Bingham’s family visit for his sister’s wedding is especially touching and telling in his transformation.

Vera Farmiga is perfect as the on-and-off again mirror image of Bingham’s playboy lifestyle and unintentional source of his soul-searching. Her staccato presence is both sharp and fast-paced, keeping Bingham and the audience on their toes, creating colorful intervals throughout the film.

This film weaves these people, among others, together to show the importance of connections. Your life is not your own. No man is an island. Not only are you affected by other people, but you affect them too, in ways you’d never imagine.

When asked about my opinion of flying, I’ll usually say I love it as long as I don’t have to do it alone. While a good chunk of that reasoning is because my paranoia of missing a connecting flight will be eased if I have someone to help me, it also comes from the enrichment of other peoples’ company. Airplane company, granted, can be a major headache, but at least it’s interesting. An affirmation I felt walking out of the theatre is that people are worth the risk.


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