The more I thought about Up in the Air after watching it, the more I realized what a terrible movie it is. It was pleasant enough for the first two-thirds or so, mostly because the three principal actors are all excellent in their roles, but one insanely stupid plot twist just exposed how many other holes there were in the script to that point.
George Clooney – who seems to be morphing into Cary Grant as he ages – plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant who flies around the country and fires (or, really, lays off) employees whose bosses are too cowardly to do it themselves. He’s also a straight-up mileage whore who has set a life goal of becoming the seventh flier ever to reach ten million mileages in American Airlines’ AAdvantage program. (The film doubles as an extended infomercial for American, Hilton Hotels, and Hertz.) And Ryan moonlights as a hired motivational speaker, praising a life of independence from both physical possessions and interpersonal relationships. Then, of course, he meets the perfect woman and has to change his entire philosophy, all while toting around an overconfident and highly naïve 23-year-old Cornell grad (love the stereotyping of the Ivy Leaguers – remember, kids, it’s bad to be smart!) while they teach each other Big Important Lessons about life and love and psychology.
Clooney, Anna Kendrick (as the Cornell grad, Natalie), and Vera Farmiga (as Ms. Perfect) are all superb, extremely convincing even when their roles turn out to be paper-thin (Kendrick’s) or internally contradictory (the other two). There’s an effortless chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga that makes his transition from one-night-stand to budding romance not just believable but almost invisible – before you know it, he’s falling for her, even though we’re missing a bunch of steps in the story. You might watch the film just to see these three actors, all nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, do their thing, but I think you’ll want to punch the screen before it’s over.
And the reasons are many. One is that we never learn why Ryan is so afraid of commitments. He came from small-town Wisconsin, but this isn’t the budding urbanite in search of culture beyond his homogenous, provincial upbringing. His sisters are his only family, and he’s mostly abandoned them until one of them gets married, but there’s no obvious reason why – both characters, in bit parts, are sweet and care for him even though they don’t seem to have much in common. Another is that Natalie ends up something of a prop for Ryan to play off rather than a fully-developed character in her own right – she changes as the plot needs her to change.
(This movie was, on some level, ruined for me beforehand by Will Leitch. Will’s become my go-to movie reviewer for after I’ve seen a film, because I find his observations are often so spot-on that they influence my interpretation of the movie. He nailed Up in the Air, especially on the glaring inconsistencies in the script, although I think he went easy on the plot twist, which I’ll get to in a moment. But you’ll notice I’m saying a lot of the things he said, and I’m sure that’s not an accident: He set me up. So now I read him after I’ve seen a movie and want an expert’s opinion, using Roger Ebert as my go-to guy before I choose to see a film.)
That plot twist – big spoiler alert here – is a killer, though. Alex (Farmiga, who by the way looks like what I expected Claire Forlani to look like at this age) is Ryan’s female analogue, another road warrior looking for NSA sex in high-end Hiltons but not much more than that, until the two start meeting up a little more often and then spend more quality time together at a conference, where he asks her to be his date for his sister’s wedding, to which she agrees without much debate. There they have the classic Hollywood falling-in-love weekend, and you might think they’re headed for happily ever after … until he surprises her at her house in Chicago, only to discover she has a husband and two kids, after which she berates him as if it’s his fault that she hid this significant life detail. (“I’m a grown-up.” No, sister, you’re a raging narcissist, and possibly a sociopath as well.) Alex is two completely different characters that have virtually no crossover, and the idea of this independent, too-perfect paramour also being a loving mom who also is willing to abandon her kids for a romantic weekend with the guy with whom she says she only wants casual sex is such a farce that it blew up the whole movie and made me realize how badly I’d been bamboozled by everything that had come before it.
I will give Up in the Air credit for one thing, however: Someone involved in writing the story at least grasped the world of frequent flyer/guest point accumulation. Ryan is absurd in that regard, and his underlying motivation is murky, but the absurdity of the portrayal is the source of its humor. Either you’ve been a heavy traveler and understand using every trick possible to max out your points, or you know someone who has. I’ve never traveled as much as Ryan has – I’ve never been above the first level of “elite” status on any airline – but I do it enough to make me a mileage junkie, with affiliated credit cards and one eye always on promotions that might boost my miles or bump me up in status. That nod to people who fly as part of their jobs was a cute touch – but it added virtually nothing to the strange, unfinished plot about Ryan Bingham’s life choices, and when Sam Elliott makes his Coen-esque cameo as the pilot on the flight where Ryan reaches the ten million mile threshold, it’s like we’ve been airlifted into a separate film entirely. The worthwhile parts of Up in the Air could have been aired on a flight from Chicago to Milwaukee, but I like to get a little farther off the ground than that.