As awards season kicks into high gear, commentators of all stripes are going to talk about Up in the Air in terms of its zeitgeist relevance, its timely attention to economic instability and the corporations that feast on the carrion of the downsized and dispossessed. And in so doing, they will overlook how simply satisfying it is as a piece of filmmaking. Even when the script loses its footing in the third act, Up in the Air remains charming in a way that too few contemporary films manage to be.
"Charming" certainly isn't a way to describe the professional life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who makes his living as a hired-gun deliverer of bad news to companies' laid-off employees. He also spends most of his days traveling from city to city, and life on the go seems to suit Ryan just fine - so fine, in fact, that he's rocked by a proposal from his employer's new go-getter hire, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), that they save travel expenses by doing all their axing via video conferencing. In an attempt to show Natalie how it's really done, Ryan takes her on the road with him, at the same time that he happens to be firing up a long-distance fling with another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga).
The script, by Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman, provides plenty of pizzazz, particularly the interplay between Ryan and Alex. Sexy on-screen banter has become a lost art, but Clooney and Farmiga go at it with gusto. Their scenes are so enjoyable it would take a knockout performance to steal the show - and that's exactly what Kendrick provides as Natalie. She's playing something of a stock comedy-drama role, the outwardly confident career woman who's actually an emotional mess, à la Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, but Kendrick gives even the most potentially cringe-worthy moments a spunky energy.
The performances are so strong, and the sociopolitical context so hard to ignore, that Reitman's direction is likely to lurk in the background of most discussions about the movie. But his work is terrific here, and not just with his actors. He finds an ideal rapid-fire editing rhythm for the early scenes establishing Ryan's travel routines; and he picks a perfect visual metaphor for his establishing shots of each new city, a plane's-eye-view in which every landscape is anonymously similar.
It's fairly evident where Up in the Air is taking both Ryan and the audience. The road to Ryan's redemption is littered with only-in-the-movies moments. But a talented filmmaker knows how to make the journey to that destination an enjoyable one. And Reitman is so good at his job, we hardly even notice him doing it.