Monday, 25 January 2010

Up In The Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

Following his previous two features, 'Thank You For Smoking' and the hugely popular 'Juno', Jason Reitman takes an oppurtunity to revisit a script he originally penned in 2002, albeit now with a darker tone to the humour to reflect the recession-climate. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to help companys who need to fire their employees, but lack the skills or courage to do it themselves. While this would be a daunting career choice for some, Bingham revels in it, but in particular the time it allows him to spend 'Up In The Air', literally, flying across the USA to the various companies in need of his specific service. Clooney uses his signature smart-guy charm to perfection here, creating a cynical yet blackly hilarious character, one who has built up walls around himself, cutting himself off from his family, the women he meets in his various destinations, and ultimately himself. He at first is shown to enjoy this isolation, a point further highlighted when he does his backpack-themed talks on 'How much does your life weigh?' in which he instructs workers in how to cut-off additional 'baggage', showing his joyfully cynical approach to life, "Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die."

The two major characters who enter the picture affect his approach to himself and the existence he leads. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman he meets in one of many hotel bars, explains herself hilariously with the line, "Just think of me as you with a vagina". She appears to want the exact same things from life as Bingham, incuding a casual relationship, but later on Ryan begins to want more, leading to an awkward confrontation and a reassessing of his life goals. Clooney and Farmiga work extremely well opposite each other, their casually cold relationship imbued with sparks of genuine romantic attraction and subtle nuances.

The other key character is Natalie Keener, the young upstart at the 'firing company' Ryan works for, who, on the orders of Bingham's boss Craig Gregory (played by the ever-funny Jason Bateman), has to accompany Ryan on several trips to be 'shown the ropes'. She wants to implement a online 'firing program', in which the company can interact, as in fire, unwanted employees from a computer terminal, thereby greatly improving efficiency. This however, means no travelling is required, which poses a threat to Ryan's way of life.
At first Ryan is irritated at having to 'babysit' Natalie, but after her boyfriend breaks up with her via text message, her 'go-getter' exterior lifts. Ryan and Alex take her to a company party they gatecrash where she finally relaxes and enjoys herself. Her prescence creates an almost fatherly, mentor effect in Clooney's character, while her youthfulness and referral to him as 'old' bring sharp barbs of humour.

Besides the two main female characters, the other factor that affects Ryan's life-view is the reintroduction of his family though his sister's wedding, where he gets roped into taking pictures of a cardboard cut-out of the couple in random locations. He treats this task with utter disdain, unable to understand why the couple would want pictures of themselves in places they've never been to. Its later revealed by them that they couldn't really afford a honeymoon so they wanted pictures of places they could have gone to. This highlights the characters differing opinions on travel - Ryan loves to travel but has almost no interest in landmarks, exploring or any tourist activities - he simply enjoys the concept of being away from home. The couple on the other hand, want to visit these tourist attractions so badly that they'll happily pretend just to gain some of the 'experience'.

Later on though, when the groom starts to experience some 'cold feet', its Ryan who has to step up, using his silver-tongued skills in a hilarious scene with Ryan's older sister, the one who initially contacts him about the photo idea, in the background through the window grimacing at Ryan's methods of talking down the groom. Its the wedding scenes and the reconnection, notably with his older sister, that instill further thoughts in Ryan, that perhaps he does miss a more settled life instead, or at least simply realising that he does miss his family.

Similarities to Reitman's previous two features are present, but its his first, 'Thankyou For Smoking', that bears the most recurring themes and style. Like Thankyou, Up In The Air's comedy is black and cynical, dealing with argueably dislikable characters in morally questionable professions that at first charm us with their wit before going on to show their more vulnerable sides. They also both deal with protagonists isolated from mainstream society due to their professions, and their seperate reasons to do so - Ryan for his joy of travelling isolation and lack of relationships, Thankyou For Smoking's Nick Naylor for the oppurtunity to defend a moral scapegoat and utilise his spin skills.

One interesting factor is the way travelling is presented throughout the film. Through Ryan's eyes, the idea of different cities and being constantly 'on the road' is romanticised, but not in the classical way of discovering oneself or a country, but more in the idea of a departure from expected norms and relationships. As mentioned above, his sister and her fiance view travel from a tourist, mainstream-exploration perspective, while Alex sees it as an desirable escape from her family life, but with the knowledge that she can frequently return to that life.

A key scene which appears towards the end of the film shows Ryan reaching his 'goal' - collecting ten million frequent flyer miles, a personal goal that is referred to earlier on in the film as simply, "The miles are the goal". When he does actually reach this target, and he recieves his membership card and meets the chief pilot, Ryan is surprised to find himself deflated by the experence. He realises, at this later point in the film, after the wedding, the relationship with Alex and the roadtrip / life lessons from Natalie that the miles don't make him feel complete. He starts to consider that he wants some of the things he had previously shunned and he begins to reassess his life.

The film ends with him looking at a departure board, before we see a sweeping POV plane shot and we hear Ryan's closing monologue, "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over." Is this a sign that he wants to reconnect with a way of life he previously wanted no part of? Or is he simply accepting of his fate? The open-ending leaves it in the viewers hands.

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