Up in the Air

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.

Grade: C+

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



  1. Unfortunately Jay you sound like an ipod generation,MTV camera motion,cynic who likes dark,jagged films. This film isn’t Midnight Express.Maybe you need that tactile type of film to feel that a reality exists. I see nothing wrong with sharply written dialogue,that has some slickness, as long as the acting, and writing is good.

  2. “it seems to have been made by people who’ve never been fired or laid off”

    Agreed. As someone who had his boss rather than a hired hitman come into my office and let me go (lucky me!), I was ready to at least give this movie a pass as far as the rather lame scenes of employees being given the axe and their reactions were concerned.

    However, the character played by Anna Kendrick was unconvincing, unbelievable and often annoying. A clay target for Clooney to repeatedly shoot down. The crying scene in the airport looked and sounded like something from an old “I Love Lucy” routine.

    Clooney and Farmiga carry the bulk of this movie on their shoulders. Their relationship is the only thing that made this film interesting for me.

    A “C+” seems about right.

  3. The movie is as light weight as its title. Bingham’s profession and peripatetic life style are so obvious to the theme that it is embarrassing. Should we be thinking allegory? A sledge hammer would have been more subtle. The movie degrades itself further by using schlocky film sequences to advance a point – e.g. the “filler” scenes of Clooney and Farminga dancing at the wedding and the corporate party they crashed. Boy were they having fun as they “connected.” The ultimate weightiness of the theme comes at the shocker in Chicago. (Oh no! And I had learned my lesson so well!) This was a pretty package with some funny lines, but mostly it was a tedious low rent rom com. George, get better script advice in the future.

    1. Kathleen,

      You’re more vicious than I am! But your assessment is, obviously, on the money regarding that schlocky montage of Bingham and Alex “connecting.” Very broad emotional strokes. I hate that. It’s insulting.


  4. Jay, you nailed it. This is an ultra-conventional and disingenuous movie. Shlocky and full of very broad emotional strokes. I feel like I wasted 2 hours of my life sitting through it.

  5. My wife and I just returned from seeing the movie and we were completely disappointed. We checked to see what Ebert had to say and were surprised at his 4 star rating. I found your write-up on Rotten Tomatoes and both my wife and I felt your observations were perfect. This is a movie with some redeeming elements for the viewer, but ultimately it lacks a soul.

  6. “Up in the Air” broke my heart. All the hoopla had me convinced it was going to be a great quirky movie like “Juno” or “Eternal Sunshine.” A friend was equally excited and we made plans to see it on New Years Day three weeks ago. Anticipation built as the awards and accolades poured in! Finally ensconced in a packed theater, the weird rendition of “This Land” in the opening credits made me nervous. The dreadful ensuing movie confirmed the worst. It is an amateurish (eg., wedding montage), BORING, cliqued, condescending pile of yawns about three unlikeable stereotypes played fairly well by the stars. Don’t buy the hype – George Clooney is Danny Ocean once again. Nothing new here except a few wrinkles and more gray hair. If he wins an acting award, someone else was robbed. At the start, the two female leads appear to be opposite, one nasty and desperate, one sympathetic and wise. By the end of the movie, we see they are both horrible people who screw up the smug life of selfish sociopath who loves being a nomadic corporate hitman. Who cares? I guess the underlying anti-capitalism theme makes this crappy movie play well in the pseudo-intellectual critical circles. At the end, there was an audible “Huh?” from the audience.

  7. What Anti-capitalism theme, Seabee? This is a movie that seemed to be saying, hey, everything is broken beyond repair, but Don’t Worry America! Don’t Worry America, you’ll always have Milwaukee, and each other. Don’t worry about these sharks who move among us, in the end, They Won’t Get the Girl! And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? For a movie that started out with a Woody Guthrie song, I expected so much more. In the end, we slobs lose our jobs, but, hey, we have each other! Meanwhile, the corporate pricks own the skies, and that, unfortunately, is where the action is. But, who cares? We can leave the theatre feeling like Everything’s Going to Be Alright. The usual Digital Lexapro.

    1. In response to Dave re anti-capitalism, I refer to Jason Bateman’s character as the face of corporate greed. He is delighted the economy is in the tank because it means more lay-offs. George Clooney tries to spin being fired into a positive light with slogans he doesn’t believe for people he doesn’t care about. Then there’s the “efficiency expert” with no MBA or prior work experience convincing the CEO to change his entire business model and go virtual. Yeah right.

      And I don’t get what you mean about everyone “having each other” in the end. Ryan realizes you might get what you wish for – more nomadic life as an axman when what he really wants is the girl. But she turns out to be a lying cheat and a slut who can somehow manage to leave a husband and a bunch of kids to attend a stranger’s wedding in Milwaukee. But per the movie she’s a “grown-up.” One of the “clients” goes through with her threat to kill herself so the efficiency expert who ignored the threat gets the sads and leaves Omaha for San Francisco and the job she really wanted in the first place. Ryan writes a reference letter. Is that the great humanity to wich you refer? At least we agree, the movie is terrible.

  8. I found this movie much more sophisticated than the others found it. The parallel between his emotional and physical alienation is portrayed brilliantly, albeit subtly, creating a similar experience in the viewer who is tossed about between certainty and uncertainty, attraction and repulsion, longing and selfishness. It is not an “in your face” rom com that spells out exactly what you should feel and when you should feel it. The morning after, I’m still processing the complexity of a character who is reaching a new level of personal awareness and wondering where he goes next.

  9. only thing i liked about the movie was farmigas body double for the nude scene. that was a lovely body; gorgeous ass and lovely breasts — looked natural too. yum. script was trash, many parts corny, clooney… i just cant take the dude seriously. farmiga was good aside from the lines she had to read at some parts, she gets a pass. i dont even know the other girls name and wont bother to learn it.

  10. KH, I agree with you. I think these guys trashing this movie simply didn’t get the point. It’s not about the brilliant storytelling or jokes. This is no thriller or no comedy. This movie is a huge warning sign: our society is trying to make Binghams of all of us. And actually, being a Bingham is not so bad at all. But if you become one, you have to give up on some things, like family, love, drama. In the end it all comes down to this: Bingham can handle it. Can you?

    Oh, and about Natalie: I don’t agree with Jay Antani at all, why would it be unrealistic or old-fashioned for a twentysomething to dream of marriage AND have a carrier in the same time? Stop thinking Sex and the City. Real girls DO WANT to get married, even if they have a good salary:D

  11. I totally agree with your review. My husband and I watched “up in the air” for 40 minutes and walked out of the theater because we were simply bored!
    I expect a movie to entertain me… there was nothing even slightly entertaining about this movie.
    Oscar-worthy???? …don’t think so!

  12. I think the reviewer’s expectations are set a little too high. This is, after all, American cinema. And American cinema is best enjoyed without expectations of any kind. Basically, you should expect this to be better than the worst movie you’ve ever seen in your life. If you do that, you’ll leave the theatre happy.

    The movie itself consists of watching George Clooney be George Clooney for about 2 hrs. He flies on some planes, goes to some bars, talks to incredibly beautiful women. He talks serious business with some suits. He talks bullshit to some self-help crowd. But mostly he just talks. I like watching George Clooney talk. So I liked this film.

  13. Thank you Rotten Tomatoes for helping me find this page! I was trying to understand why this movie got so much applause when I thought it was terrible. The scenes at the sister’s wedding, Natalie’s rants about relationships and the ghastly montage at the end about how layoffs are okay in the end if you only have somebody to hold were unbearable, as was Natalie’s not-believable crying at the airport when her boyfriend broke up with her. Weird that this movie had a recurring theme of taking pictures of a two-dimensional cardboard cutout when that is what EVERYBODY in the film was, a two-dimensional focus-group version of shallow business people, ambitious naive graduate (in this case also crossed embarrassingly with Bridget Jones), tragic destroyed salt-of-the-earth victims of corporate America, blah blah blah. Just missing a slutty stewardess and a crazy cat woman who dies alone and is eaten by her cats. (Yawn.)

    The brilliant graduate got her business model taken seriously and was drawing up dialogue flow charts without knowing any essential legal basics, and she intended to travel around the country with her own pillow. Ri-i-ight.

    And for anyone who thought Alex/Vera Farmiga’s character’s big reveal was a shocker, it had a big neon foreshadowing spotlight on it when she was telling Natalie that while she might have settled on certain details about men after her 20s, loving children was still a big factor. Did ANYONE think she was talking about George’s character there? His bland smile there just showed he wasn’t thinking about anything she was saying.

    In the only three good things I can say about this film – Vera Farmiga was good and she has a beautiful voice (thank God for actresses who don’t speak in breathy little girl cutesy voices like Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger, and that by the way is the ONLY positive thing I can say about the Natalie actress.) Jason Bateman was good. And it’s always nice to see Melanie Lynskey who I personally thought was more impressive than Kate Winslet when they both debuted in Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures,” and who is phenomenal at accents. There. Give Melanie an award nomination somebody!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s