“Up in the Air”
Contemporary Film Noir
The term film noir refers to a style of crime drama popular in the 1950s. But the words literally mean “black film.”
“Up in the Air” is film noir in
the most literal sense. A tract for the times, “Up in the Air” is
unsure whether it is black comedy or light tragedy. And that delicious
indecision is one of the most important characteristics of this film.
Directed by the ever more
impressive 32-year-old Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” and
“Juno”), “Up in the Air” follows the life of Ryan Bingham (played by
George Clooney). Ryan is a self-described “termination facilitator,” a
mouthpiece hired by corporate executives who lack the courage to fire
their own employees.
In a down economy, Ryan’s
business is great. He flies from city to city, calmly and
professionally dispatching unsuspecting workers before moving on to the
next town. Ryan maintains an odd love affair with his work. He takes
pride in the service he provides, and he loves the detritus of his
work—the recycled airplane air, the endless nondescript motel rooms,
the tiny first-class whiskey bottles, the preferential perks of
business class flying.
Ryan’s life goal is to reach ten
million miles with the same airline and become one of its seven
platinum card holders. He is single and prefers it that way. In his
spare time he gives motivational talks about “unloading the backpack of
your life.” Yet there is a melancholy streak in Ryan’s blithe
nonchalance that is gently revealed as the story unfolds.
There are three significant
women in Ryan’s life: Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow road warrior and
bed partner; Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a neophyte colleague who has been
brought to the company to initiate firing by web chat—a plan which
threatens Ryan’s job; and Kara (Amy Morton), Ryan’s sister who persists
in trying to steer Ryan back into the family by helping with her
daughter’s wedding. Over time, these characters slowly evoke Ryan’s
deeper needs in love, work, and kin.
Some of this film’s most perfect
moments are its rich ironies. Ryan’s work involves telling others
“their position is no longer available”; Natalie’s work will eventually
render Ryan’s work obsolete. Natalie’s career is launched by her
invention of cost-effective firing via Internet, and it makes perfect
sense until her own love life is terminated by a text message.
Like Reitman’s earlier film,
“Thank You for Smoking,” “Up in the Air” contains within it a study in
the nature of morality and love in a meaningless universe. “Smoking”
followed the justifications and relationships of a spokesman for Big
Tobacco. In “Up,” the relationships are more complex, but the context
is still embedded in a corporate world devoid of meaning.
My favorite scene takes place on
the day of the wedding, when Ryan’s brother-in-law to be gets cold feet
and Ryan is pressed by his sister to counsel the boy. “I couldn’t sleep
last night,” the groom sputters. “I saw myself married. Then there are
kids. The kids go to school. They get married. I saw my grandkids. Then
I was old and alone. Then I was dead. What’s the point?”
Ryan answers matter of factly:
“There is no point. But do you want to go through life alone?” It is a
moment of revelation for Ryan, as he realizes he is speaking to
himself. There is no point, but all things considered, human contact is
better than no human contact.
This point is made so subtly the
viewer could miss it. Of course, the next question might be, “And why
is contact better than non-contact?” In a meaningless wotld, one might
just as well opt for Ryan’s chosen life, which at least yields a more
painless existence. For that matter, one might opt for no life at all.
What is the difference?
There are great strengths in the
performances. George Clooney plays Ryan with a smug confidence mixed
with wistful melancholy. The three actresses are not foils to the big
star; they share the screen and the story fully with Clooney.
Kendrick’s Natalie is wound so tightly that when she dissolves in tears
at her boyfriend’s breakup text I felt the theater audience release its
own tension in surprise laughter. Amy Morton’s Kara plays the loyal
sister with a careworn fatigue that reminded me of some members of my
But I think my favorite
performances in the film are not purely “performances” at all. Reitman
used actual recently fired employees rather than actors to play those
being terminated by their companies. The welter of emotions on their
faces as they dramatized the moment that the axe fell on them is the
most wrenching, truthful part in the film. It may make this film too
contemporary and too personal for people living in this downsizing era
to see. But it makes “Up in the Air” a faithful chronicle of a most
—Dave Greiser has been reviewing films for DreamSeeker
since the beginning of the magazine. He recently relocated from
Hesston, Kansas, to Baltimore, Maryland, where he is pastor of North
Baltimore Mennonite Church.