(to be sung to the tune of "Up, Up and Away" by The 5th Dimension)
I watched my coworker's screener of "Up in the Air" a few nights ago. It really did live up to all the rave reviews I'd heard from everyone who'd already seen it. What follows is not a review in the sense that it recaps the plot without revealing the ending, but just a collection of thoughts that have been lingering in my head over the past couple days. So in the parlance of imdb.com, **SPOILER ALERT**
This was the first time I watched a Clooney film and thought, "Wow, he's a great actor." Hot, charming, entertaining - yes, always. He's the consummate movie star. But this time, Clooney made me feel these completely unexpected, bittersweet pangs of pity. I guess I went into the film with certain assumptions about his character, Ryan. He's a layoff artist for hire, traveling from one economically screwed company to the next, firing dozens of workers on behalf of their chicken shit execs. I was afraid this would be another Thank You for Smoking (also a Jason Reitman film; it's a flick so confident in its thoroughly unmerited sense of cleverness that I couldn't make it past the first twenty minutes) and so I expected Ryan to be a heartless corporate shill and "commitment phobe" who just needs a sensitive and beautiful woman to warm his heart and change his ways.
But that wasn't it at all. Okay, maybe I had it half-right. Ryan is transformed by two women, a naive Cornell grad coworker named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and a slightly older and more mature hottie business lady named Alex (Vera Farmiga). But his character is never heartless. He's actually a rather buoyant and affectionate man who is, unfortunately, capable of only the most shallow human relationships. His standoffishness and wanderlust are work-related survival skills. Any "normal" person with friends and family couldn't do his job, bringing misery to so many fresh victims every day. But he's been in it for so long, he's tricked himself into believing that he does it for the professional traveler's fringe benefits - the frequent flyer status, hotel room upgrades, fancy rental cars, and especially the forced friendly customer service he gets for being a VIP. When Natalie's new business model - videoconference layoffs - eliminates the need for Ryan to travel, his world unravels.
The reason I think Clooney is such a genius in this film is that he tells you everything you need to know about Ryan with his face and his delivery. When he's with Natalie, he speaks in these incredibly cynical monologues, such as his lesson on selecting the best airport security line (avoid getting behind families and middle eastern people; choose Asians instead). The really frustrating thing is that he's right; he's found the most efficient way to move through life, and he's glad for it. It gives him a sense of control that helps him stay upbeat, even though his work is awful. He manages to be callous and good natured simultaneously.
When he's with Alex, he's more vulnerable. Their dynamic is pretty fascinating. They seem to understand each other perfectly at the start of the film - kindred detached souls looking for an occasional hotel room romp - but you find out in the end that they never knew each other. Unlike a typical romantic comedy, she unwittingly breaks through his aloofness, or what she assumes is aloofness. His gragariousness is more obvious to the viewer because we get these marvelously endearing shots of his sheepish smile or twinkling eyes. I think those are actually the most heartbreaking moments in the film, even before you realize that Alex has a whole other "real" life that doesn't have anything to do with Ryan.
I appreciate the film's ambiguous ending. Is Ryan finally cashing in those ten million frequent flyer miles for a trip to anywhere-but-work? Is he still doing the layoff circuit? It doesn't matter. You can tell by his desperate expression that he's become self-aware. And while self-awareness can be a very painful state of mind, ultimately it's good for you. I guess you could call it a happier ending.