Up in the Air isn't perfect, but by dealing with how we live now, something that most movies with a Hollywood star eschew, it's an enormously refreshing and moving comedy. Trekking one American airport and Hilton hotel to the next, with light luggage and spiffy charcoal suits, Ryan Bingham fires employees so their corporations don't have to while occasionally giving trite motivational speeches at business conferences. His motto is that life should move along breezily (as the film does in its sparkling first half)--not to be slowed down by accouterments and personal relationships ("the slower we move, the faster we die"). Ryan's cool, controlled life is slowly unraveled by three events: the arrival of a plucky, but naive, new hire (Anna Kendrick), his sister's impending wedding and a romance with his flirtatious doppelganger ("just picture you with a vagina," she says, played with perfection by Vera Farmiga).
The film is terrifically cast. George Clooney continues to be Hollywood's best man, our Don Draper/GQ archetype: flat, never ruffled, self-sufficient and hot in a suit. Yet, with this role, he manages to align gloss with gravitas. It's his best performance. Newcomer Kendrick stomps into the film as the ultimate HR horror show. With her boxy suit and uber-tight pontytail, she is whip smart and robotically efficient with all things technical but hopelessly juvenile with emotional matters. To watch these two characters spar and subtly (and with believability) change into human beings is a wonderful gift from the actors.
The travel/road movie is worn territory--wandering about before a family event (weddings, births, child beauty pageants) yet Up in the Air is distinctly placed in the heat of the recession. At the end of this decade, with outsourcing and technology rapidly replacing human interaction, the country's economic future has never been so uncertain (and so grim). Director Jason Reitman (Juno) gives incredibly moving moments to non actors, recently laid off (from jobs in St. Louis and Detroit), to say what they had said and what they had wanted to say. Some critics have called it exploitation, especially when intertwined with the cool glamour of Clooney, and yet I can't imagine how Reitman could've done it differently or better. How rare it is for a film to be topical without being preachy. Unlike the corporations portrayed and much of what Hollywood coldly delivers as "product," here is a film, chock-full of contradictions, that dares to show the importance of human connection. It's by no means a crowd-pleaser, but winningly Capra-esque. ***1/2