With George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 109 minutes.
Given that director Jason Reitman’s father, Ivan Reitman, is best known for making movies like “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Kindergarten Cop,” there was no reason to think that Jason Reitman’s comedies would be anything more than disposable entertainments. It’s what he would have learned at his father’s knee, right? Instead, Reitman the younger has established himself as one of the most promising American filmmakers to emerge in this decade.
As with “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) and “Juno” (2007), UP IN THE AIR focuses on a charming and likable protagonist who is leading a less-than-exemplary life. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies from city to city to fire people. That’s his job. He goes in to a company and eases out people with such smoothness and dexterity that they think he’s doing them a favor.
Of course in the present economy, his company’s business is booming and he spends little time at home in his sterile apartment. Instead he flies all over the country, racking up frequent flyer miles and enjoying all the perks of “preferred guest” at the hotels where he stays. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, he and fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga)try to impress each other with the courtesy cards they carry from various hotels, car rental services and airlines.
Ryan enjoys life in his cocoon, but it is shattered when Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young hotshot at his company, comes up with a plan to fire people by teleconference, effectively grounding him for good. Ryan is sent out for one last road trip with Natalie so she can observe the master at work, and it’s the start of a process where he will begin to see what real life is like, and how little it has to do with his existence. Part of it involves the marriage of his sister, who cannot afford a honeymoon, so he is asked to carry a cardboard cutout of the happy couple and take pictures of it in the various cities on his travels. It is a gesture at once touching and pathetic, with Ryan starting to see there’s more to living than being on the express line.
Reitman has again assembled a marvelous cast, with Clooney’s natural charm making Ryan’s self-questioning even more poignant. The temptation to coast through life if one can must be overwhelming. Vera Farmiga is marvelous as the woman who shares Ryan’s interest in a no-strings attached relationship whenever they can coordinate their travel schedules. Attracting much notice is Anna Kendrick as the young woman on the make. Will Natalie become smooth and empty like Ryan twenty years down the road, or is there still hope for her? Kendrick shows us someone in the process of inventing herself.
“Up In The Air” is, in the minds of many critics including this one, the best film of 2009. It’s funny, it has heart, it has the courage of its convictions and, happily, it shows that Jason Reitman’s film may be worth watching for many years to come.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.