June 20, 2016

Up in the Air (2008)
Grade: 57/100

Director: Jason Reitman
Stars: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga

What it's about. Most people dislike airports, plane flights, car rentals, and motels, but not George Clooney. He loves to travel, and not because he cares where he is going. For him, the pleasure is in the journey, not the destination.

That's because once he gets there, he does one of two things. Fire strangers, or deliver the same motivational speech once again. His speech consists of asking the audience to get rid of all their physical possessions and replace them with relationships to people.

Clooney has done the former, but not the latter. One wonders whether his unwillingness to take on a life partner is also the reason why he is willing to fire people for a living. One by one, the unfortunate souls are called into a conference room, to hear George Clooney tell them they are canned, and here's a packet, although not in so many words.

Clooney doesn't care much about the people he fires. They are strangers. He understands that their lives may be ruined, but he also knows that he only is the messenger, the guy paid to do the dirty work. Clooney does care about one thing: racking up frequent flier miles, so that he can become the seventh person in history to earn 10 million miles.

He may not admit it, but he also cares about Vera Farmiga (the mother from the "Bates Motel" television series). She is a fit thirtysomething on a similar circuit of planes, airports, and hotels. Clooney and Farmiga think alike, and soon their affair, with no strings attached, flares up wherever their paths coincide.

Enter Anna Kendrick, a cute young adult who is overly educated, overly ambitious, and overdressed. Kendrick and Clooney share the same employer, and she is sent out on the road with him to learn the ropes. The naive and idealistic Kendrick disapproves of Clooney's life choices, and lets him know it. But she is the one who questions her life philosophy, after her live-in boyfriend dumps her.

But Clooney also has an epiphany. Once he realizes that Farmiga wants only a casual, intermittent relationship, Clooney realizes he is trapped in an empty, repetitive lifestyle. Yet he is powerless to change it; he knows nothing else.

Jason Batemen shows up as Clooney's boss. Sam Elliott plays an airline pilot. Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey are Clooney's long lost sisters, and Danny McBride becomes Clooney's new brother in law.

How others will see it. Fueled by positive reviews and an A-list lead, Up in the Air was a box office success, earning multiples its budget. The movie was nominated for six Oscars, including most of the most significant categories. But it was shut out, losing mostly to The Hurt Locker, a film that few had seen in theaters but was directed by a woman. For many years, the Oscars has been covertly desperate to find a such a film worthy of Best Director and Best Picture.

Today at imdb.com, Up in the Air has a huge 270K user votes. The user rating of 7.4 out of 10 is somewhat lower than expected, presumably due to the film's deflated ending, and Vera Farmiga's deceptions: her husband and lover don't know about the other.

How I felt about it. Up in the Air presents three life philosophies, those by Kendrick, Clooney, and Farmiga, listed in rising order of their cynicism. When we first meet Kendrick, she still believes in the one true lifetime love, mostly because she believes she has found it. When that pillar is removed, followed by a second support, her belief in work, she doesn't quit. She simply begins life again, in a new job.

Clooney begins the film smug in his life of luxury on the employer's dime. What he does when the plane lands, the firings and the stupid speech, are the means to justify the end: ten million miles. But with Farmiga and Kendrick gone, it dawns on him that maybe Kendrick was right after all. Without love there is nothing, no matter how problematic that love likely would be.

But Farmiga has the best of both worlds: a happy family, and an escape from them on the road with whomever catches her eye and returns the favor. She is the most jaded of all, and is rewarded for it. Which begs the question, is she right?