Of course everybody's talking about how the film is timely, featuring actual victims of the recent recession as those who are being fired. However, its timely in more ways than that. Throughout the film, I couldn't help but notice how co-writer/director Jason Reitman didn't seem so interested in corporate downsizing, but rather in the way technology is replacing human connection in our daily lives. Natalie's new system allows Ryan and his co-workers to fire people via webcam, rather than going out to personally do it. The idea behind this is that it will save money by cutting travel costs, but at what risk to the unemployed's mental stability?
In fact, the main theme of Up in the Air is that people need human connection in order to truly thrive. Ryan himself resembles the predicament Natalie introduces. He lives alone in a barely-furnished apartment in Omaha, which he rarely comes home to. He spends most of his year alone in various airports and hotels. He doesn't bother to keep in touch with his family, and until he meets Alex Goran, he has no interest in romance either. He even gives self-help seminars on the side where he encourages people to distance themselves from others, because its his philosophy that to be totally happy is to be totally alone. But as he falls for Ryan, becomes a father figure to Natalie, and deals with his sister's upcoming wedding, he has to question that philosophy. In short, human connection is inevitable; we can never truly be alone.
This is a theme that Reitman handles deftly. In his screenplay, co-written by Sheldon Turner, he neither condemns nor approves of Ryan's lifestyle; he just presents it to us. He manages to make this life seem exciting, with each airport becoming an almost exotic location, and depressing simultaneously. And the decision to use real recently unemployed for the firings was a fantastic one; some things you just can't fake.
George Clooney plays Ryan with a kind of jerky grace, making his character brutally honest but never unlikeable. He may be a cad, but he's a lovable cad. I did notice, however, that Ryan Bingham is an awful lot like Michael Clayton, and that same idea of company-man-changes-his-philosophy-and-therefore-his-life is also there, but the differences are distinct enough to set the characters apart. Besides, the film rests on Clooney's performance, and he delivers a stellar one.
It's the women, though, that elevate the film beyond being just a character piece (though it would have been a fantastic one). Holding her own against Clooney is Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex Goran. Alex is Ryan, to paraphrase the movie, "with a vagina," a fellow frequent flier who also chooses to be alone. Farmiga brings a powerful sensuality to the screen, making it easy to understand why Ryan would fall so hard for her. Their chemistry together is electric, especially in their first scene, where they compare hotel key cards and privilege cards. She proves to be a fantastic foil for Ryan, and Farmiga prevents the role from ever falling into cliche.
Previously best known for her small role in the Twilight films as what seems to be the only other human being in wherever Washington, Anna Kendrick proves to be the true breakout of the film, and perhaps even the year. Kendrick, with her tight ponytail and adorably mousy features, plays Natalie as a college grad with a confident exterior who is insecure on the inside. It could have easily been an unspectacular role, but Kendrick inflects her performance with so much depth, humor, and believabilty that she just about steals every scene she's in. You can feel her pain every time she makes a difficult firing, each one wearing away a little more of the hardened emotional shell she's wrapped herself up in. And perhaps most amazingly, she holds her own against seasoned vets like Clooney, Farmiga, and J.K. Simmons (a Reitman favorite, who gives a memorable cameo as one of the firees). Here's hoping she continues to find roles like this one that allow her to showcase her fierce talent, rather than squander it among sparkling vampires and bad-CGI werewolves.
Overall, Up in the Air was one of the best films I've seen all year. Deserving of its Best Picture nomination? Definitely.