Up in the Air is a 2009 American comedy-drama film directed by Jason Reitman and co-written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner. It is a film adaptation of the 2001 novel of the same name, written by Walter Kirn. The story is centered on a corporate “downsizer” Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and his travels. The film follows his isolated life and philosophies and the people he meets along the way. Filming was primarily in St. Louis, Missouri, which substituted for a number of other cities. Several scenes were filmed in Detroit, Michigan; Omaha, Nebraska; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Miami, Florida.
Reitman heavily promoted Up in the Air with personal appearances at film festivals and other showings, starting with the Telluride Film Festival on September 5, 2009. The Los Angeles premiere was at the Mann Village Theater on Monday, November 30, 2009. Paramount scheduled a limited North American release on December 4, 2009, broadening the release on December 11, 2009, with a wide release on December 23, 2009.
The National Board of Review and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association named Up in the Air the Best Picture of 2009. It received eight Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations and garnered a win for Adapted Screenplay, six Golden Globe nominations, earning a win for Best Screenplay, and three Screen Actors Guild nominations. It received six Academy Award nominations, but did not win in any category. Up in the Air also received recognition from numerous critics’ associations.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for the Career Transitions Corporation (CTC). He makes his living traveling to workplaces in the United States and informing workers of their dismissals in place of their employers, who fear doing it themselves. Part-time, Ryan also delivers motivational speeches, using the metaphor “What’s In Your Backpack?” to extol the virtues of a life free of burdens like relationships with people as well as things, arguing that the best way to live is to travel light, with little to hold one down.
Ryan relishes his perpetual travels, and his personal ambition is to earn ten million frequent flyer miles. While traveling, he meets another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga). They begin a casual relationship, meeting and sleeping together whenever they can arrange to cross paths.
Ryan is unexpectedly called to CTC’s offices in Omaha, Nebraska. An ambitious, freshly graduated new hire, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), is promoting a plan to cut costs by conducting layoffs via videoconferencing. Ryan argues that Natalie knows nothing of the actual process, live or not, and she has never fired anyone and does not know how to handle upset people. He plays the role of a fired employee to illustrate her inexperience. His boss (Jason Bateman) assigns Natalie to travel on his next round of terminations, much to his annoyance. Throughout the rounds, Natalie is visibly disturbed when firing people face to face.
As they travel and become better acquainted, Natalie questions Ryan’s philosophy, but he is satisfied with his lifestyle. During the trip, Natalie is shattered when her boyfriend unceremoniously dumps her by text message. Ryan and Alex try to comfort her. Natalie later lectures Ryan about his refusal to consider a commitment to Alex in spite of their obvious compatibility, and she becomes infuriated; she apologizes later, but they are soon ordered back to Omaha to implement Natalie’s program. There are problems during a test run; one laid-off man breaks down in tears before the camera, and she is unable to comfort him.
Instead of returning immediately to Omaha, Ryan convinces Alex to accompany him to his younger sister Julie’s (Melanie Lynskey) wedding near Waupaca, Wisconsin. Julie had him (and others) take photos of a cutout picture of her and future husband Jim (Danny McBride) in various places because they cannot afford a honeymoon trip. When Jim gets cold feet, Ryan’s older sister talks Ryan into using his motivational skills to persuade Jim to go through with the wedding. Although this runs counter to Ryan’s philosophy of non-commitment, he persuades Jim that “everyone needs a co-pilot” and the important moments in life are rarely unshared. The wedding takes place without further problems.
Ryan begins having second thoughts about his own life. As he starts to deliver his “What’s In Your Backpack?” speech at a convention in Las Vegas, he realizes he no longer believes it and walks off stage. On impulse, he flies to Alex’s home in Chicago, Illinois. When she opens the door, he is stunned to discover that she is married, with children; Ryan leaves without a word. She later tells him on the phone that her family is her real life and he is simply an escape. When she asks him what he wants from their relationship, he is unable to answer. Happy with the arrangement ‘as is’, she tells him he can still call her if he wants to.
On the flight home, the crew announces that Ryan has just met the ten-million-mile mark. The airline’s chief pilot (Sam Elliott) comes out of the cockpit to meet Ryan and give him a special fulfillment card. He notes that Ryan is the youngest person to reach the milestone, only the seventh to do so (as the card is so numbered); Ryan, who had been preparing for this moment for a long time, shows little emotion. When the pilot asks where he’s from, Ryan says, “Here.”
Back in his office, Ryan calls the airline to transfer five hundred thousand miles each to the newlyweds, enough for them to fly around the world for their honeymoon. His boss then tells Ryan that a woman he and Natalie fired killed herself by jumping from a bridge, as she said she would, and that when Natalie found out, she quit via text message. Ryan claims to have no memory of the employee making the threat. The company puts the remote-layoff program on hold due to government concerns, and Ryan is again “back in the air”.
Natalie applies for a job in San Francisco, California. The interviewer is puzzled about why she chose to work for CTC, given her sterling qualifications; she states that she followed a boy. Based on a glowing recommendation from Ryan, he hires her. The film concludes with Ryan in the airport, standing before a vast destination board, looking up, and letting go of his luggage.
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