Remember that warm and fuzzy montage at the opening of “Love Actually,” where Heathrow Airport is the scene of dozens of reunions, with lovers, parents and children, siblings and old friends running into each other’s arms and sharing their affection for each other?
Those are not the friendly skies that Ryan Bingham travels in “Up in the Air”. For Bingham, portrayed brilliantly by George Clooney, airports, hotels and rent-a-car counters are his world, and it’s a world that allows him to avoid getting too close to anyone. Bingham’s business is firing people on behalf of managers who can’t face their own soon-to-be-axed employees, and business is booming. So while Bingham technically lives in a spartan apartment in Omaha, his real home is what novelist Walter Kirn called “Airworld” in his novel of the same name, upon which the film is based.
A seasoned pro at corporate travel, Bingham is a Zen master; the way he removes his laptop and shoes for airport security before briskly putting everything back in its place feels like a combination of choreography and time-efficiency training. There’s not an Admirals Club he can’t whisk his way into with the right card, nor a line at a Hilton or a Hertz he must endure. His motto? “The slower we go, the faster we die.” He’s got few possessions, fewer emotional entanglements, and his one goal in life is to reach ten million frequent flyer miles. So, naturally, Ryan Bingham is about to discover that he’s actually got a heart, in the process of getting it broken.
The first challenge to his fiefdom comes when recent college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick) develops a method of firing people online in the hopes of saving the company the vast expense of sending its army of Binghams all over the country to do its dirty work. Bingham quickly proves that Natalie doesn’t really understand the niceties of job termination, so boss Craig (Jason Bateman) sends her out on the road with him to observe the master at work.
Also rocking Bingham’s world is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), who’s just like him — they flirt over their stacks of preferred-client cards and make long-ranging dates to rendezvous in other business hubs around the country. They seem to be operating happily within each other’s impersonal parameters, but when she accompanies him to his sister’s wedding — where the deeply commitment-phobic Bingham finds himself having to pitch the benefits of couplehood to nervous bridegroom Jim (Danny McBride), who’s gotten cold feet just before the ceremony — Bingham finds himself taking a harsher look at his glib and freewheeling life.
What’s so terrific about what director Jason Reitman (who co-adapted Kirn’s novel with Sheldon Turner) accomplishes here is that “Up in the Air” never falls in the obvious traps of a movie that’s about someone who realizes his life is a sham. We’ve watched so many protagonists learn their lessons before stampeding towards a happy, heteronormative ending, but every time we think we know what clichéd path this movie’s about to follow, the smart storytelling confounds our expectations and veers off into less-traveled, and more recognizably human, territory.
Ryan Bingham could be the ultimate George Clooney role — he’s a charismatic guy who’s got an easy way with charming guys and seducing women, but there’s always the sense that he’s giving you what you want while simultaneously looking right through you. It’s what Clooney generally does, even in his best roles; he’s an engaging performer, but there’s always that sense that he’s trying to crowd-please. When Bingham has to drop his own façade, it steers Clooney into some of most revelatory work to date.
Anna Kendrick fulfills the early promise she revealed in Todd Graff’s “Camp,” playing a young go-getter who’s still trying to figure out how the real world works. The scene where Natalie has a meltdown (in a hotel lobby, of course), followed by drinks with Bingham and Alex in which she makes one charmingly tactless observation after another, is a delight. For her part, Alex serves more as a plot device than as a character, but Farmiga makes her sexy, smart and unflinchingly pragmatic about her relationship with Bingham.
In portraying the downsized employees, Reitman fills “Up in the Air” with a mix of documentary-style footage of non-actors and performers who make an impact with a tiny amount of screen time — even though J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis turn up for one scene a piece, they resonate throughout the film, as do McBride and Melanie Lynskey as the couple whose wedding provides a detour for Bingham. (Horrors, he’s forced to stay in a hotel where he’s not a member of their Executive Level program!)
The one thing I didn’t buy is Bingham’s sideline career as a motivational speaker. He uses a backpack as a metaphor for the spiritual weight of all the people and objects in our life, and it seems strange that his message — in a nutshell, don’t own anything or love anyone — would become so popular that he’d be asked to speak at a major event in Las Vegas. Unless we lived in a world where Thomas Malthus sold as many books as Tony Robbins, it just doesn’t scan.
That quibble aside, “Up in the Air” defies expectation and winds up being one of the best American films of the year. Audiences in today’s economy may not feel like lining up to empathize with a guy who fires people for a living, but that’s no fault of Clooney’s witty and moving performance.