Sometimes, awards season can be overwhelming. All of a sudden, there’s tons of movies you need to check out. A vast majority of them will be really good, too. It can be very intense, and it’s easy to get too caught up in it and only view films in comparison to their competitiors rather than for what they actually are themselves. The 2009 season was very much such a case for me, especially since I got too hyped up about everything that it was inevitable for me not to be let down. In a slew of greatly anticipated films, Up in the Air was the one I had particularly high hopes for. A critically loved dramedy, made by Jason Reitman, the same guy responsible for Thank You For Smokng (which I really dig) and Juno (which I love), and starring Mr. Hollywood George Clooney. This would be my favorite for the season, surely. Well, it wasn’t. I very much liked the film, but I didn’t feel it really brought anything fresh to the table. What was so great about it? Why was this at one point considered a Best Picture frontrunner? And, perhaps the most unfair question of all: Why wasn’t it Juno?
It wasn’t Juno because it didn’t need to be. It was considered a Best Picture frontrunner because people thought the Academy would love it (it ended up not winning any Oscars at all). And what’s great about it is everything, as I have now discovered on a rewatch.
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living. When a company boss doesn’t want to tell his employees himself that they’re being let go, he hires a guy like Ryan to handle the unpleasant task. The firm he works for has clients all over the US, so he spends a lot of time flying from one city to another. He barely has a home and maintains little contact with his relatives. And he likes it that way. As he says himself during one of his side gigs as a public speaker: “The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake: moving is living”. He feels no need to settle down. He’ll take pleasures where he can find them.
But then two women enter his life and upset it, one on a professional level and another on a personal one. The former is young hotshot Natalie (Anna Kendrick, here sporting a speech pattern that oddly reminds me of Jesse Eisenberg) who’s come up with the idea for Ryan’s company to start firing people over video phone calls, thus threatening to cause a permanent halt to his days of constant travelling. The other is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman who much like Ryan himself spends a lot of time travelling for work. They meet each other at an airport, find mutual attraction and end up having sex that same night (they’re both gorgeous and charming, so who can blame them?). But what starts as a casual friends-with-benefits scenario soon grows for Ryan, who realizes that he might be falling in love with her.
One problem I recall having with the film after my first time seeing it was the feeling that the two sides of Ryan’s life don’t intersect in any significant way. They play as two separate stories, ocassionaly encountering but rarely affecting each other. This is something I don’t really see as a problem now, for two reasons. 1: Many of us are the same way, keeping our professional and social spheres apart. 2: They do intersect. The intersection is Ryan. The threat of a new direction in his working life doesn’t does affect his relationship with Alex, not directly but through the change it has on him. There are two different stories at play in Up in the Air, but it’s one and the same main character in both of them.
I maintain that Clooney’s role as an assassin in the brilliant and underrated character study The American is his finest work to date, but his turn as Ryan Bingham isn’t far behind and is certainly the more pleasant of the two. Ryan is very charismatic, always ready and willing to turn his charm on but smart enough to know not to when he’s firing people in his job. This is one of those roles where Clooney is constantly acting, even when he’s not the focus of a scene (keep an eye on him during the part where Alex is consoling Natalie; he’s always smiling or frowning or doing something). It’s a character it’s easy for us to buy an actor like Clooney playing, but that doesn’t mean he’s just coasting by. He’s working the character for all its worth. And his two co-stars are equally great. Vera Farmiga is alluring as Alex, the kind of woman you’d just as easily fall in love with as Ryan does, and there are plenty of nuances to the performance that really shine through when you know how the story will play out. Meanwhile, Anna Kendrick plays Natalie as an ambitious rookie, full of confidence that you know just won’t be able to hold up. She fires off her lines with stable precision when the character is working, but it’s in a party scene where she lets her hair down that Natalie becomes a fully fledged character. This is where her professional and social spheres converge.
It came as a surprise to me, but I found myself loving Up in the Air this time around. Removed from all the Oscar hoopla, I find little to complain about. It knows when to push the comedy and when to give breathing room to allow the viewer to ponder the emotional sides of the story. It’s very funny, and the funny comes both in the lines the character deliver and in the all too recognizable situations they find themselves in. It’s not profound or revelatory in the plot elements it touches on (which might be what disappointed me the first time around), but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s not something we’ve seen a million times before. Ryan isn’t a detached grouch who learns to become a better man; he’s pleasant and happy from the start and finds new pleasures and ways to be happy as the film progresses. I hesitate to call it a character study, but perhaps that’s what it is. It has an engaging plot, tons of humor, an easy-going intelligence to its proceedings and some stellar acting. What’s not to like? I wish I’d have seen all this the first time I saw the film, but better late than never.