Polished, neatly packaged, and wrapped tightly in a shiny bow, Up in the Air is Hollywood’s gift to Oscar voters in 2009. While being of perfectly adequate quality with professional grade writing, directing, and acting, Up in the Air is also a tedious chore of a movie to write up. Why? Because there’s nothing challenging here, no choice in storytelling, performance, or style that wavers outside the path of convention and normalcy.
As a movie, it’s…fine. If you like a slick drama with dashes of clever social commentary and human interest elements thrown in, this is the movie for you. Up in the Air has PRESTIGE MOVIE emblazoned across it in large, gold letters. It’s the movie with the full-page promotional ads in your local paper’s movie section trumpeting its selection in numerous categories in this season’s dizzying array of awards. It’ll be hard to miss.
Jason Reitman’s recession-era romantic dramedy is themed (among other things) on the existentialism of job loss but it seems to have been made by people who’ve never been fired or laid off. What they do know is that getting laid off can be really, really hard on a person. Scenes of employees reacting to the news that they’ve been let go drip with such heavy sentiment that, as a viewer, you can feel Reitman and Company working overtime to wring tears and heartache from you. It’s only one of the many disingenuous qualities about the movie.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) shunts around the country, reporting to company bosses who’ve hired his services as an ace corporate downsizer and charged him with the task of firing redundant employees. As unsavory as it is, Bingham enjoys the sense of transience his profession gives him. Afraid to put down roots, to commit to anything, Ryan thrives on his synthetic lifestyle of living in airplane cabins and hotel rooms, rental cars, and executive lounges.
Up in the Air finds Ryan faced with twin crises. The first is the imminent extinction of his here-today-gone-tomorrow lifestyle thanks to a go-getter who’s convinced Ryan’s boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), that firing people via an internet connection is far cheaper than the face-to-face method, which requires flying personnel all over the country. And the second is his sister’s wedding, an event that demands that he visit his family, from whom he’s long kept his distance.
These wrinkles in Ryan’s lone-wolf existence are, in turn, perpetrated and complicated by the arrival of two women: One is the aforementioned go-getter, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the other is fellow professional transient, Alex (Vera Farmiga), the woman he falls for and whose carefree attitude to their relationship only draws him closer to her.
When Craig orders Bingham to take Natalie with her on his next run, it signals the movie’s second act in which Bingham tries to school his naive, precocious, high-strung companion on the finer points of firing people — not to mention, luggage selection. One of the movie’s butter knife-dull attempts at humor has Natalie arriving at the airport with a clunky, over-packed suitcase. It’s a device meant mainly to prompt a demonstration by ace traveler Bingham on flying light, never mind that a sharp, shrewd woman would know better in the first place. Yes, the comedy doesn’t aim much higher than that.
Of course, Natalie’s tough outer shell quickly begins to melt away after her boyfriend leaves her via text (a moment riddled in an over-the-top breakdown by Kendrick that would be better suited to a bargain-basement rom com), prompting her to mourn her romantic disillusionment (honestly, an ambitious, professional woman dreaming of marriage and kids in her mid-20s seems like a stretch in the 21st century but, okay, I’ll play along). Turns out, Natalie is an old-fashioned gal, a woman who places high value on love, loyalty, and relationships — the very things that Bingham reserves special contempt for. Much witty banter on the subject ensues.
Still, the theme of lasting companionship swirls in the film’s undercurrents and surfaces at every major plot point. When Bingham attends his sister’s wedding, for instance, he’s called upon to pep talk the dithering groom-to-be on the joys of marriage; a scene whose real function is irony since Bingham doesn’t know the first thing on the subject, and, in contemplating them, it’s the change stirring in his own heart that matters here. Bingham’s affection for Alex is what’s at stake in Up in the Air, and their relationship comprises the movie’s most organic quality. Reitman handles Bingham and Alex’s scenes together with a decidedly looser touch, and, truly, these characters share a genuine chemistry with a humor that feels natural. A major reason for this is that Clooney and Farmiga are two talented actors whose work transcends the limitations of the material. In their scenes together, we can enjoy the building dynamic of two talented actors working their craft, reaping as much from a stilted screenplay as possible.
However packaged and artificial Reitman’s concoction may feel, the star of the show, thankfully, is George Clooney. He is the film’s emotional center of gravity, due largely to the warm, natural appeal the actor exudes on screen. Clooney is the closest thing Hollywood’s got to an old-time movie star, namely to Cary Grant. Like Grant, Clooney has the sophisticated demeanor and easy, dapper charm that endear him to his audience, regardless of whatever cad, heel, or crook he happens to be playing. And, like Grant, time and again, Clooney is really playing variations on the same cool, elegant persona, whether it’s Danny Ocean or Michael Clayton or Ryan Bingham. Each role requires him to fine-tune his comic and dramatic temperatures, but, at the end of the day, all the above characters could easily sit together in some smoky club room, enjoy drinks, and understand one another.
Up in the Air is a well-intentioned Hollywood product with a message about the value of human connections. But it mistakes glibness for wit and charm for irreverence. What’s missing from the engine of his screenplay is a more razor-edged sensibility, in which things don’t feel so cute and tucked-in at every turn. It’s a movie of missed opportunities, wherein Reitman could have plumbed the dark depths of the betrayal, loneliness, and denial that make up the core of Bingham’s wounded self. He could, thereby, have made the moral payoff of his conclusion feel well-earned and satisfying. As it is, he’s got the right actor for the job, but his movie lacks the guts.
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott