George Clooney is good at his job. And often, that job is to play the role of a professional who is also good at his job. For example, in Intolerable Cruelty he was a highly sought-after divorce attorney. In Michael Clayton, he was a skilled fixer of embarrassing corporate problems. And in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind he played a killer for the CIA. And because of the soul-crushing nature of all of these jobs, there came a point in each film where we got to see Clooney's character have a breakdown during which he questioned the very fabric of his life, be it high thread-count cotton or a coarse burlap. That moment eventually comes in Up in the Air for Ryan Bingham, the professional axe-man who makes a living telling people they've been fired, but what breaks him isn't the parade of distraught strangers whose lives he ruins day in and day out (albeit in the nicest way possible). No, it's the flying.
Ryan has been flying from town to town for so long that he has a system for packing, a system for going through security and a system of "living" that consists solely of hotels, rental cars, expensed meals and airport lounges. His frequent flier miles are approaching 10 million, something only six men have done before and a goal he dreams about like a nine-year-old saving skee-ball tickets. In return, however, he's had little to no contact with his two sisters, and his one-bedroom apartment near axe-man HQ in Omaha is less homey, less furnished and less stocked than most hotel rooms. And when our movie opens, he wouldn't have it any other way, which is why he's pissed when he hears that they're going to make him do his job over the Internet to save money.
Clooney is undeniably the star, but the movie is invaluably supported by his three co-stars, and a slew of great bit players. Anna Kendrick (New Moon) is great as the go-getter Natalie, who came up with the Webcam firing idea and who becomes Ryan's wingwoman when their boss -- a delightfully breezy Jason Bateman -- wants Ryan to show her the ropes. While Natalie learns the science of flying, and tries to convince him that his way of life is not something that should be preserved, Ryan grabs whatever layovers he can with businesswoman Alex (Vera Farmiga, Orphan), who lives a nearly identical life to him. Danny McBride plays his future brother-in-law, with the impending nuptials acting as somewhat of a wake-up call for Ryan, and J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis play angry victims of downsizing who benefit from Ryan's gentle touch. (A final cameo towards the end of the film is so magically splendid that I can't even begin to want to spoil it for anybody.)
The movie's focus on layoffs makes it incredibly timely and more than a little heartbreaking, as most of terminated employees are played by real people who had recently been fired, reacting the way they really reacted to the news or the way they wish they had reacted. However, it's ultimately subservient to the romantic storyline, which itself isn't as predictable as you might think. The non-traditional romance and the economic relevance, combined with knockout performances, have already gotten the film recognized by the National Board of Review, who awarded it Best Picture, Best Actor (Clooney, shared with Morgan Freeman for Invictus) and Best Supporting Actress (Anna Kendrick). So if you put stock in awards, that should tell you something, and if you don't, believe me when I say the awards are justified.
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