Is happiness a home? Actually: Not just a home, but a one with appliances and electronics and furniture and a dog and kids and a spouse?
For layoff expert Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), happiness is a flight to his next destination. Instead of human connections, he makes flight connections, traveling 300+ days a year from one downsizing company to the next. Always ready with reassuring words, he facilitates mass-firings with a steady hand and calm demeanor. He espouses freedom through solitude, and brings his message to the masses with self-help speeches in hotel ballrooms. It’s not until his company hires recent college grad Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) that his mechanized routine is threatened.
Natalie arrives with all the ambition and hubris of her generation: Crisp and full of herself, armed with big ideas that would ground the company’s force and use web cameras to do their nationwide dirty work without ever leaving the office. When the boss-man (Jason Bateman) sends Natalie on the road with Ryan for one final firing trip, the two must negotiate each other while Ryan shows his young charge the ropes. Yet, as they hustle from one airport to the next, pivotal events and encounters slowly nudge both characters to question their iron-clad beliefs.
Through their story — from daily face time with dozens of newly fired workers to Ryan’s dismissal of convention — Up in the Air examines the state of the American Dream with an unapologetic lens and deft, dark wit. Director Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s book features the same discipline and exacting dialogue that made his previous films, like Thank You for Smoking and Juno, such stand-outs in our cultural canon. Unlike his previous work, the timing of Up in the Air lends it an even more visceral effect. In one particularly taut scene, Natalie tries out her new-fangled firing system, stepping up to the plate with all the vim of a hot new slugger. But as the middle-aged man on her computer screen begins to cry, the sea change inside her is achingly palpable, throbbing in a hanging moment of realization.
Ryan’s sea change churns when he’s landlocked, attending a snowy wedding for his sister. It’s there in his hometown that the oceans of distance between him and his family are unmistakable. As Ryan, Clooney brings his classic charm to the character, and that warmth keeps his alter ego afloat as he navigates family crisis. Amid his efforts to forge family ties, Ryan is also savoring a new romance of his own. Over the course of the nuptial extravaganza, his boat for one appears increasingly less seaworthy.
With its multi-tasking satire, Up in the Air is a significant comment on the state of our country, right now. At a time of both uncertainty and celebration, the film takes aim at the dissolution of anchors and the cracks in our collective belief system. Employing artful humor and understated poignance, Up in the Air forces a consideration of what really matters, and serves as a bittersweet mirror for us all.