Friday, January 15, 2010

Up In The Air

As you can probably tell form the title and the large movie poster located just above these words, this is going to be a movie review of the film Up In The Air, which came out a couple of weeks ago. The story follows one man, Ryan Bingham, at a pivotal moment in his life. Ryan works for a company that fires employees for other companies that "don't have the balls to do it themselves" and flies all over the country to do so. He's also a motivational speaker whose talk is titled "What's In Your Backpack?", the metaphorical backpack being your life. He advocates that it should only be filled with the things that you absolutely need, throwing away the rest of the people and possessions that unnecessarily clutter your life. He also advocates stereotyping as "it saves more time that way."

These factors combine to conjure a man whose only "real" home is in the airport. There's a very neat sequence that's repeated a few times throughout the film showing just how at home he is- the carefully choreographed dance of putting things on and taking them off at the security checkpoint, the breezy pace that he can use thanks to his many elite statuses, and the casual, measured stroll of someone cheerfully strolling through a park. The airport and its accessories are his domain, and he treats them with more tenderness and care than anyone from what most people would call his "real" life. The concierges at the airports know him by name and wait on his every whim. His own neighbor he rarely sees as he is away most of the year, and there's the family that barely communicates with- these are unneeded peripherals that would unnecessarily hassle his streamlined existence. The only goal that he has in mind is to earn a truly spectacular number of frequent flyer miles and thus earn the ultimate of elite statuses. Ryan is all about loyalty, but only to those things that benefit him and his miles.

But of course, stories are all about conflict, and conflict enters Ryan's life in the form of Natalie Keener, a recent addition to the company who has convinced his boss to suspend the constant flying and have his employees fire people via video conference. Ryan takes her to task, and is himself tasked with showing her how his job works out on the road. He also meets a fellow travel-junkie by chance and begins unwittingly trying to fit her into his metaphorical backpack.

It's not only because he loves his ephemeral airport world that he defends his "life style choice." He isn't a misanthrope- instead he looks at his job and philosophy as beneficial ones. In his job he has the skills, training and experience to be the best person to help these unfortunates through what is probably one of the toughest times of their lives. Other people (like their actual bosses) don't have the right touch to deal with the situation in an efficient and effective manner. He firmly believes that a video conference would break that fragile bridge that he is trying to build between the shattered remains of their now previous employment and the next opportunity that they can grasp. And as for his philosophy, he is merely trying to make sure that he gets the best out of what he enjoys in life without encumbering others unduly- we're all going to die alone anyway, so what's the point?

Of course, this is only the beginning of the plot- it has plenty of quite logical and starkly realistic twists and turns as Ryan tries to deal with the possibility of losing his current lifestyle and being forced to build something permanent with the fixtures in his life. He definitely shows himself as a character capable of making change if convinced to do so, but the world often reacts to his attempted changes with the mixed message that is reality. That's not to say that everything is serious- there are plenty of light hearted and snarky moments in the movie that had us laughing, just that overall things tend to be based on reality.

If you are going to watch this movie, don't watch it for moral stories or a plot building to some kind of conclusive whole- there isn't one. Instead it is a great character study into the ways that people deal with the big events in their lives. Being forced to come home, ending a relationship, getting married- these all appear in the film, and the reactions are, like the rest of the movie, logical and realistic. So are the characters, especially the female ones, which is excellent as they are what cause the changes in Ryan's life. Even the bit parts like his sister's groom are played like they were the stars of the show- nothing is left to stereotyping.

So, in summary: I liked it. If you liked Jason Reitman's other films like Thank You For Smoking or Juno (though, a little less on the latter) you'll like this one. If you like character studies, I think you'll like this one too. It's a movie that, (shamelessly stealing from the Los Angeles Times) "makes it look easy. Not just in its casual and apparently effortless excellence, but in its ability to blend entertainment and insight, comedy and poignancy, even drama and reality, things that are difficult by themselves but a whole lot harder in combination. This film does all that and never seems to break a sweat."

Until next time...

"It liberates the vandal to travel--you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction."
- The American Abroad speech by Mark Twain, 1868

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