2009’s “Up in the Air,” currently making the rounds on cable channels, seems to be one of the most effortless movies ever made. It’s one of my favorites among recent films despite several plot inconsistencies. But the pluses so outweigh the minuses that the worth of the journey is never in dispute.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a top gun with CTC, a consulting firm specializing in career transitions, i.e., its reps do the corporate lay-offs for their downsizing clients. Needless to say, this entails a lot of face-to-face blow-off from the newly unemployed, played here by both actors and recently laid-off civilians. But Ryan seems to love his work. He knows the best rib joint and hotel in every city in the country, and, as he proudly tells us in voice-over, he’s on the road, or more accurately, “up in the air,” 300 days of the year. It’s only when he touches the ground at his corporate home in Omaha that life, if you can call it that, becomes complicated. But the bubble Ryan lives in is shortly to be punctured by two different women: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate nomad he meets in a hotel bar, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hot-shot Cornell Business School grad hired by the head of CTC (Jason Bateman) to revolutionize the company’s methods. When his boss insists he take Natalie on his next road trip to show her the nuts and bolts of the firm’s operations, Ryan’s reluctant compliance really gets the film underway.
Fortunately “Up in The Air” is more than just a take on the recent
Depression recession. It has within its running time one of the subtlest, funniest and most charming movie scenes in recent memory. A bit of background: Natalie has just been dumped by her boyfriend via text message. Ryan and Alex try to comfort her, but a great deal more is going on. The scene provides us with a lovely moment of insight into each of these characters, courtesy of wonderful writing by Jason Reitman (who also directed) and Sheldon Turner, and expert performances by all three actors. It’s not surprising that each of them received an Oscar nomination: Clooney for Best Actor and both women for Best Supporting Actress.
23 year-old Natalie begins her lament thusly: “When I was 16 I thought I’d be married by now, maybe have a kid, corner office by day, entertaining at night…”, followed by an itemization of how her now-ex “fit the bill,” ending her list of virtues with “a nice smile.” Sensing that Alex may think that needing a man in her life may be retro, she tries to regain ground with “I don’t want to sound anti-feminist. I mean, I really appreciate everything your generation’s done for me.” Alex’s smiling, non-sarcastic rejoinder, “It was our pleasure,” cracks me up every time. But what makes this scene so memorable is her response to Natalie’s question of what she–Alex–thinks the perfect man would be like. Vera Farmiga strikes exactly the right note—her expression and delivery are perfect as she shows us wistfulness combined with hard-earned wisdom: “You secretly pray that he’d be taller than you…not an asshole…enjoys my company…comes from a good family. You don’t think about that when you’re younger. Likes kids. Wants kids. Is healthy enough to play with his kids…And please, let him earn more money than I do…You may not understand that now, but believe me, you will one day. Otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster [Ryan chuckles in recognition]. That he have some hair on his head, though that’s not a deal breaker these days…And [smiling at Ryan] yeah, a nice smile. A nice smile just might do it.”
Natalie ends this reverie with “Wow, that’s depressing. I should just date women.” Watch George Clooney’s reactions to Alex’s quick response: “Tried it [He shoots her a look]. We’re no picnic ourselves” [His expression? Priceless]. But the payoff comes with Alex’s reply to Natalie’s “I just don’t want to settle.” Alex: “You’re young. Right now you see settling as some sort of a failure…By the time someone is right for you, it won’t feel like settling. And the only person left to judge you will be the 23 year-old girl with a target on your back.” It’s a wonderful moment. Vera Farmiga’s amusement never for an instant tips over into condescension. It’s as if she’s affectionately bucking up her younger self.
Emotional journeys are as much in play in “Up in The Air” as physical ones. Super-efficient Natalie, advocate of firing people via Skype in order to eliminate huge corporate travel budgets, loses some of that assurance when confronted with the end reality of what she does for a living. On her learning tour with Ryan, she’s left gasping in panic when the first employee she fires in person declines career counseling because “There’s a nice bridge near my house. I’m going to jump off it.” Being dumped by her fiancé provides another life lesson. Ultimately it’s satisfying to see Natalie practice what she preaches to Ryan as she heads for a job in San Francisco, her original employment destination before she followed the boyfriend to Omaha. Though we don’t learn who her new employer is, we hope it’s in a more humane business than CTC. Natalie’s earned it.
Ryan’s journey is something of a paradox. The man who won’t buy when he demands Natalie “Sell me marriage” during a debate on relationships steps up to do exactly that when his sister’s fiancé gets cold feet on their wedding day. The man who evidently lives on a diet of random hook-ups and encounters with an obliging neighbor finally wants to be with someone more than anything he’s valued in the past, whether it’s hitting that mark of 10 million air miles or speaking at the most exclusive motivational conference in the country. The scene in which Ryan and Alex have a phone conversation after he learns she’s got a husband and family should be required viewing for anyone who thinks George Clooney can’t act. He listens so quietly yet the sense of betrayal is enormous—it’s all in his eyes. For a man who makes his living essentially reading other people, that betrayal sounds on both personal and professional levels.
Despite its excellence, “Up in The Air” does have a few nagging faults. How did Ryan know where Alex lived? Did she give him her address? That’s pretty chancy, given her situation. And how does a married woman shake off spending a weekend with her husband and two kids to go away for a wedding as her boyfriend’s plus one? (She must be the breadwinner and he’s a stay-at-home dad, maybe? We never find out.)
Some clues to Alex may be found in the extras on the “Up in The Air” DVD. There’s some Ryan/Alex dialog that was cut which seems to indicate that Alex is not only falling for Ryan but is somewhat torn about it. It’s a shame this was excised, because it makes her later remark to Ryan,”You were a parenthesis” ice-cold indeed, and seemingly coming out of nowhere. But all things considered, a relatively minor issue in a film that’s one of the smartest in the last ten years.