Up in the Air

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 1, 2009

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Couples retreat: When Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), his whole world changes.

One of the things that makes George Clooney a great movie star is that he’s always letting us know just how much fun he’s having being George Clooney. (Can’t say I blame him. It seems like a great gig.)

What’s interesting about Up in the Air , director Jason Reitman’s sturdy, crowd-pleasing adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel, is the way it allows Clooney to subtly criticize his popular persona. It’s almost like an Eastwood vehicle in how it plays upon the baggage we’ve brought into the theater regarding its star.

Which is fitting, as baggage is something foremost on the mind of Ryan Bingham, the slick corporate hotshot played so well by Clooney it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. In what’s perhaps the only growth industry during recession-addled times, Bingham works for a freelance consulting corporation that fires people.

On the road almost 300 days a year, he sets up shop in banal conference rooms across the country, breaking terrible news, offering severance packages and taking the heat most bosses are too cowardly to confront. He’s got the routine down cold, gently guiding the downsized through the devastation, nimbly finding glimmers of hope to offer them for their uncertain futures.

Clooney’s Bingham moonlights as a motivational speaker, preaching a carry-on philosophy: Relationships, possessions and entanglements are all things weighing down an imaginary backpack you’re carrying. Empty it. Nobody gets to check any luggage when travelling with Ryan Bingham. His life is compartmentalized, his apartment spartan—everything streamlined and attachment-free.

This is all good and well when you’re on the road 300 days year, but our hero’s perfectly ordered existence is knocked into disarray after a meeting with his boss (the effortlessly smarmy Jason Bateman). Anna Kendrick’s shark-like, up-and-coming scene-stealer has figured out that the company will save millions of dollars in travel and hotel fees annually, if they downsize folks via Skype video-conferencing, instead of in person. This isn’t just a terrible idea because it adds a cold and impersonal edge to an already unpleasant encounter. Even worse, it means Ryan Bingham will have to stay home and get a life.

Bad timing, as he’s recently met his match in Vera Farmiga’s Alex, a swaggeringly sexy female version of himself, similarly married to her career and on the road just as much, if not more than Ryan. Their courtship begins with a funny, strangely sexy discussion of rental cars and frequent flyer miles, and before long they’re performing post-coital laptop schedule checks, setting up assignations in anonymous hotel chains and convention centers. Our rascally hero’s chemistry with Alex has him wondering for the first time if his no-commitment lifestyle is really worth it.

Of course, the key to Up in the Air is watching George Clooney learn to grow up and settle down—something which will probably never happen in real life. But it provides a certain wish fulfillment fantasy for the audience. Clooney, the bastard, isn’t just getting better looking as he ages. He’s also becoming a more skillful actor, learning how to do more with less and deftly underplaying some of the screenplay’s clutzier elements.

Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking and Juno were a couple of the smuggest pictures I’ve seen in recent years, but here he wisely dials down the self-satisfaction and acquits himself admirably with the sort of a classy, adult dramedy we haven’t seen since Cameron Crowe went into hiding after Elizabethtown . Reitman’s lone misstep is occasionally cutting to documentary interviews with real people who have recently lost their jobs. These bits don’t just undercut the movie’s Hollywood gloss, they also over-explain the subtext of scenes that work just fine on their own.

Far more effective is Reitman’s visual command of interchangeable hotel rooms, airport lobbies and blandly anonymous office parks. Up in the Air ’s most haunting quality is this vision of a franchised, homogenized America as sterile limbo—a prison from which we long for Clooney’s Bingham to escape. ■

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