As I'm sure most film fans know by now, George Clooney plays a man in "Up in the Air" who lays people off for a living. I knew that going in, but didn't realize until those scenes began that maybe it wasn't the best movie to see at the start of a week when the Association I work for would be laying people off, for the first time in the five years that I've been there. I wasn't in the layoff meetings myself, but I was a part of the decision-making process, and can attest that it was no fun. It didn't help to be confronted a day or so later with the Newsweek cover story titled "Layoffs Are Bad For Business."
But I digress - and the point of sharing that information was not to elicit any sympathy whatsover, but merely to note that in order to do what Ryan Bingham does in "Up in the Air," day-in and day-out, you have to have almost complete emotional detachment from life. And that is a pretty good description of Bingham, as portrayed by Clooney. That's not to say that Bingham is an unlikable character - he's exceedingly likable, in the classic George Clooney mold. Smart and witty, the viewer's first impression of the man is that he is completely in control of his life. It's an unorthodox life, one spent almost entirely on the road and - you guessed it - up in the air, but one that he's made work very well. And anyone who has had to do a significant amount of travel as part of their work can appreciate the travel tips that have become second nature to Bingham. Not to mention salivate at the prospect of the rewards and benefits that Bingham receives as the result of all his travel. And that, in and of itself, is somewhat ironic. This man, who is in a state of complete emotional detachment, has achieved something that actually allows him to be treated by the travel industry as a human being. And anyone who's had their chain jerked by a travel provider should know exactly what I'm talking about.
Clooney is great in the role. Some might be tempted to say that he doesn't deserve his Oscar nomination, that he's "just playing George Clooney." To those people, I would suggest that if playing George Clooney was that easy, well...more than just George Clooney would be doing it. The rest of the cast is also first-rate, particularly Vera Farmiga as roughly the female equivalent to Clooney's Bingham, and Anna Kendrick as the young know-it-all who joins the company prepared to revolutionize it, and in the process learns a thing or two about herself. By the film's conclusion Bingham has also learned a thing or two about himself, and it's a bittersweet lesson. We can all speculate after that final scene what Bingham will do next, now that he's achieved his major goal in life and found out that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But the answer to that riddle is elusive, which is as it should be.
Among the cast, I also want to single out for praise Jason Bateman, who nails the aloof, somewhat detached himself boss of the company, and the always dependable J.K. Simmons, who in his few minutes on the screen proves that he's one of those actors that you should always want in your film.
Overall, it is an outstanding movie. Had I seen it before the end of 2009, it would have fit very nicely into my top five of the year.