'Up In the Air' Steers Clear of the Predictable Route, Lands the Emotion

Destination Unknown
Up In the Air
steers clear of the predictable route, lands the emotion

There is something oddly familiar about Jason ReitmanNs Up In the Air, in which George Clooney plays a commitment-phobic business traveler with no use for meaningful human interaction. Could have sworn weNve been here before. When was it? And where? Oh, yes, of course: Joel and Ethan CoenNs Intolerable Cruelty, released in the fall of 2003 and forgotten by that yearNs first freeze. The screwball comedy with a dizzying topspin featured Clooney as Miles Massey, the divorce lawyer who was the love of his own life till she came along—Catherine Zeta-Jones, that Cinemascope devil in a red dress who convinced the heartless Miles he had, gulp, soul. Which is why, just as he was set to deliver the Big Speech to a roomful of attorneys about how to gut unhappy couples, Miles stepped up to the microphone, tore up his prepared remarks and decided, instead, to speak “from the heart.” Poor bastard never knew what hit him.

The scene replays itself, only slightly altered, in ReitmanNs very loose, awfully affecting adaptation of Walter KirnNs 2001 novel about Ryan Bingham, who, when heNs not busy traversing the flyover states delivering pink slips, delivers motivational speeches in hotel ballrooms about emptying out oneNs metaphoric backpack. “How much does your life weigh?” he asks his audience before ticking off all the “stuff” (from shelves full of knickknacks to family) that turns oneNs life into a parade of “negotiations, arguments, secrets, compromises.” Ditch it all, he demands; live unencumbered, without commitment, without companionship, without love.

Only, just maybe, the preacher is still capable of conversion. HeNll speak from the heart . . . just, just, wait a minute; itNs around here somewhere. This is no spoiler; pat resolutions are not Up In the AirNs endgame.

“All the things you probably hate about traveling,” Ryan says in voice-over, “are warm reminders I am home.” And so begins his tale, in which contemporary corporate woe is commingled with old-fashioned movie-star romance, then laced with sincerity and smarts till it adds up to something pretty special. We play the passengers, stuck next to Ryan on a plane, the part-time intimates to whom he smugly narrates his life story. And through Ryan, Reitman has found his voice—somewhere between the satirist he aspired to be with Thank You for Smoking and the humanist on display in Juno.

Up In the Air begins as a dark joke in which the unencumbered man sees himself not as the firing squad, but as a liberator come to rescue the self-exiled from their cubicle cells. He doesnNt hurt; he heals. Even better, he does so in a different city every day: Ryan flies to a strange town 322 days out of the year to sleep in a strange hotel, walk into a strange office, hand strangers their fate, offer them canned condolences that at least come out sounding sincere, then hustle to a strange airport to begin the ritual anew—all to reach the personal goal of 10 million miles flown for no other reason than “INd be the seventh person to do it,” he explains. “More people have walked on the moon.” (RyanNs actual home is a barren apartment in Omaha, Nebraska—Alexander Payne should sue.)

Then the women board, one by one, till Ryan is crowded out of his first-class narcissism. First, there is Alex (Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares a one-nighter in a Dallas-Fort Worth International hotel; they bond over their obsession with frequent-flier bonuses and rental-car-company service. SheNs his kinda gal: a part-time lover whoNll commit only as far as the next connecting flight will take her. Then thereNs Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the cocky Cornell grad who threatens to ruin RyanNs life altogether: She has convinced the boss (Jason Bateman) that itNs possible to fire remotely, over an Internet connection. So Ryan is tasked with training Natalie—show her how it feels to ruin someoneNs life at close range. And then thereNs RyanNs sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), whose pending wedding brings with it the kind of baggage that cannot be checked at the counter.

Where do they all fit in? And can they? ItNs clear RyanNs in store for some kind of emotional transformation—thatNs why studios make movies like Up In the Air—but itNs so elegantly played youNll actually believe it. ThereNs also a reason studios cast Clooney. If Steven Soderbergh taught him how to act in Out of Sight, then Reitman has taught him how to stop acting. This is the most vulnerable, the most playful, the most human performance of his career. ReitmanNs as much the softie as the Coens are cynics—and it turns out Clooney thrives with the former.

Nothing enormous happens in Up In the Air—no great tragedy, no big melodrama. Just the average pain suffered by mortals who, whether in the sky or on land, are looking for firmer ground.

Up In the Air was directed by Jason Reitman; written by Sheldon Turner and Reitman, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; and stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman. Rated R. Countywide.

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