I’ve never been much of a person for philosophy. However, I do love the story about the philosophy professor who teaches a whole class and then concludes with an exam that has one word written on it: Why?
The other day, I decided to give myself the same exam. Why? Why do I spend so much of my life obsessing over movies? What are movies other than a bunch of moving images? What does my life amount to if I spend the entirety of it staring at a screen?
A few hours later, I sat down in a theater and watched Jason Reitman’s latest feature, and every doubt or qualm I had about the time I devote to cinema went away. “Up in the Air” is a movie that reminds you why you love the movies, and I would be willing to throw away days of my life to find two hours of cinema as perfect as these.
Here, Reitman adapts a novel by Walter Kirn but does not merely transpose page to screen. He takes Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the man who becomes fascinated with grabbing frequent flyer miles while traveling around the country firing people, and sends him on a different route. Reitman’s trajectory goes straight through a chilly air current of recession and job loss affecting millions of Americans at this very moment, but at no point does “Up in the Air” hit turbulence. Reitman remains in complete control of his vessel at all times, guiding with a firm and confident hand.
Everything in Ryan Bingham’s life involves reducing commitment. His job is fueled not just by bad economy but also by people who want an orderly, unemotional way to let employees go. His life consists of routine and self-sufficiency, all the while proving to himself that he can feel surrounded when others insist him to be isolated. He preaches his lifestyle without attachment to those willing to listen as the only way to a life completely free of burden. Where others fill their lives with relationships and family for satisfaction, Bingham turns to elite rewards programs and a lofty goal of earning ten million frequent flyer miles.
But two forces begin to disrupt Bingham’s smooth sailing. The first is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), the callow new employee fresh out of Cornell who proposes a new system that threatens the high-flying lifestyle that he has turned into an art. In order to reduce travel budgets and keep employees at home, she allows for the further desensitization of their terminations by simply informing those out of a job through a computer. Bingham objects not just because of the obvious hazard it poses to his way of life but because he sees himself as more than just a messenger boy. He is a voice of reassurance and a reminder that greater things lie in store; losing your job isn’t the end, it’s the beginning if you allow it to be. To give her a taste of what it feels like to drop the ax on unsuspecting Americans, the boss (Jason Bateman) sends Natalie on the road with Bingham, who is less than willing to sacrifice for her to gain some insight. The second force is Alex (Vera Farmiga), the female counterpart and kindred spirit of Bingham. They instantly connect over the joys of traveling, and passionate feelings emerge. But due to the nature of the lives they lead, neither is looking for any sort of commitment. Yet as chance encounters become planned encounters, Bingham begins to wonder if his firm resolution to a life without connections is really one without burden.
Bingham can’t seem to make any sort of human connection, but Reitman sure can. He has a tender understanding of the human condition and human nature. A coupling with his awareness of the tough economic times and job loss affecting everyone doesn’t result in “Chicken Soup for the Recessionary Soul,” yet it has a warmth and comfort that is both empowering and moving. The dialogue isn’t as stylized or hipster as Diablo Cody’s “Juno,” but it is still a lot of fun because of Reitman’s quick wit. Equally phenomenal are the perspicacious monologues and serious ruminations, which really hammer the emotional impact of the movie home.
Reitman isn’t the only reason “Up in the Air” flies high; every aspect of the movie flies into the stratosphere with him. The acting is superb. George Clooney remains the best in the business at playing visibly collected while emotionally perturbed beneath the surface. Anna Kendrick gives the first in what I hope will be a career of fantastic performances. She doesn’t show promise as a star; Natalie Keener has made her one. She plays the naive character confronting the harsh reality that life won’t go exactly according to her plan with such spunk and gusto that gives her uptightness an irresistible charm. Vera Farmiga walks a very thin line between “feminine and agressive,” according to Reitman, and she never gives us any hint that she will lose her balance. Alex is alluring in very unconventional ways, yet she and Clooney have the chemistry of a classic Hollywood couple. The technical aspects shine bright as well, something that seldom happens in movies that aren’t period pieces or full of elaborately crafted special effects. The brisk editing makes for some very neat sequences, and some unique angles are used to capture some fantastic vistas.
Something I found very touching about the movie was something that I didn’t learn until after walking out of the theater. Reitman cast 22 unemployed Americans as people that Bingham fires throughout the movie. But best of all is his inclusion of Kevin Renick’s original song “Up in the Air,” a song that the St. Louis musician wrote about regaining footing after he was laid off. The song was sent to Reitman on a cassette tape, and he loved it so much that he put it (complete with an introduction included on the tape) in the credits. It’s definitely inspiring to see Reitman putting his message into practice, using his movie to make a difference in some lives.
This is a movie that deserves every superlative that could possibly be lavished on it. This is a movie whose advent should be shouted from every rooftop, not whispered by word-of-mouth. Don’t run instead of walk; sprint instead of run. “Up in the Air” is a movie arrives right on time, and it will resonate with an American populace who need someone to embrace their problems but give them hope as well.
The philosophy teacher that gave the one word exam awarded a single perfect score. It was not to the student who regurgitated a whole year’s worth of material. It was given to the student who simply wrote, “Why not?” I certainly cannot quote any intelligent philosopher or make some compelling argument, but I have one possible answer to the professor’s question. Why? “Up in the Air.” A+ /