The Best Picture Nominees for 2009 were: Up, Up in the Air, Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Inglorious Basterds, District 9, A Serious Man, An Education and The Blind Side. This is the third in a series of 2009 Oscar reviews.
Up in the Air is the fourth of the 10 nominees for Best Picture that I've seen. I had previously thought that this would the film that beat out Avatar for best picture, but after watching it, and The Hurt Locker, I would place it third in my list of four movies (after Precious, but before Up).
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, in another Oscar nominated role) is, for lack of a better term, a corporate firer. He goes and fires people when the bosses are too chicken to do it themselves. He's good at what he does, and he enjoys the constant travel that is part of his job. It's his secret goal to be the seventh person ever to hit 10 million frequent flier miles--"more people have walked on the moon," he tells his young colleague Natalie (a great Anna Kendrick), than flown 10 million miles.
But Natalie's got a new plan--a computer interface that would allow Ryan and his compatriots to fire people via webcam. A new Cornell graduate, Natalie's plan wins over the boss. Ryan asks if he can continue his vagabond life and show Natalie why firing people in person is a much better process than her soulless internet proposal.
Natalie travels around the country with him, eventually firing people herself. She obviously doesn't have his panache, but, with her new program, that will be irrelevant. Everything will be very clinical.
Natalie, however, is human, compared to Ryan's "no commitment" philosophy (the backpack philosophy--take as little as possible--is his topic at business seminars.). She's moved to Omaha to follow her boyfriend, who took a job with ConAgra. She's in love with him. Ryan has an attractive neighbor in his apartment building, but, since he's almost never home, she's started dating someone else. And a one-night stand in a hotel with Alex (the radiant Vera Farmiga) seems to prove that he doesn't need commitment in his life--he can get everything he needs without the messy entanglements.
Alex travels just as much as Ryan, and they share a passion for it. But when they meet in Miami (with Natalie tagging along), Ryan begins to realize that's he's falling for Alex. Although he vehemently denies it to an incredulous Natalie ("you're a twelve-year old!" she screams at him), he's lying to himself. He invites her to his younger sister's wedding as his guest. In the middle of the 'backpack speech' at a big Las Vegas convention, he stops his speech, and goes to see Alex at her home in Chicago--where he discovers that Alex is married, and has two kids. Ryan, to her, is the "escape". Ryan wanted her in his "real life." He goes back to Omaha without Alex, and without (he thinks) the traveling he loves; Natalie's program has been implemented by the company.
On the flight back to Omaha, Ryan reaches the mythical 10 million mile mark. There is champagne and the presentation of the graphite card with his name on it. While Ryan talks to the pilot, he says he's rehearsed this moment over and over, and now doesn't know what to say.
Upon his return, with his only life goal fulfilled, he finds that Natalie's program has been abandoned, and that Natalie has quit her job. One of the women she fired in St. Louis killed herself, after threatening to that day in the office. Ryan has dismissed Natalie's concerns about the woman.
His boss sends him out again--"wherever the wind takes you, send us a postcard when you get there"--and the movie ends with Ryan staring at the departure and arrivals board.
George Clooney does a great job (as always), and carries the movie beautifully. He's surrounded by the massively talented Kendrick and Farmiga, who are equal to the verbal sparring the script gives them (Kendrick, especially is great at this). They are more than equals to Clooney. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially J.K Simmons as one of the fired workers that Ryan and Natalie fire in tandem. (I think J.K. Simmons must be a feature in all of Retiman's films, like Hector Elizando is in Gary Marshall's films)
The thing I found really interesting about the movie is how conservative Natalie is. She's a go-getter, she graduated from Cornell near the top of her class, but what she wants is a husband and kids. "I should be driving a Grand Cherokee by now," she says. When she pictures twenty-three, she pictured a husband and a family. She says to Ryan and Alex, "I appreciate all your generation did for me," ("No problem", they reply), but what she wants is closer to what her grandmother had than the life Alex is leading. When she leaves Omaha, it's for a much better job in San Francisco--the job she was originally offered, and almost took, before following her boyfriend. She's learned to be more independent (not following your boyfriend is usually a good idea), but she taught Ryan something important: that the best moments in life are ones you spend with other people. Ryan's spent his entire life away from his family ("we never see you", one sister says), but when he takes Alex back to his hometown in Wisconsin, he is excited to show her his old high school, his trophies, and his pictures in the school hallways. He's proud of these connections.
Retiman does a great job with this incredible cast, and they tell a universal story--that you cannot opt-out of interaction with life. Because then you're opting out of life itself.