reviewed by Marc Glassman
Up in the Air
Jason Reitman, director and co-script w/Sheldon Turner based on the book by Walter Kim. Starring: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), J.K. Simmons (Bob), Sam Elliott (Pilot Maynard Finch), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Zach Galifianakis (Steve)
This must be the year of George Clooney. The smooth, easy-talking and endlessly charming actor appeared in three likeable films this year: the quirky animated feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the slight but amusing espionage tale The Men who stare at Goats and the thinking person’s hit of the holiday season, Up in the Air.
Clooney evokes Hollywood stars of the past. Like Gable and Grant and especially James Stewart, he is perfectly relaxed in his persona. Not for him the angst of Broadway or of Shakespearean drama. Clooney knows his limitations and plays to them–and to his audience. He’s the best possible George Clooney and we know it.
Writer-director Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air takes the Clooney character and asks, “how far can that cool facade take you?” Clooney is cast as Ryan Bingham, a man who flies across the country as an economic terminator, someone who fires people for a living. The first scene shows how good he is at his task. Quietly, politely and ruthlessly, he lets Steve–a well cast Zach Galifianakis–know that he’s through as an employee–but has a bright future somewhere (anywhere) else.
It turns out that Bingham is the ultimate “hollow man.” T.S. Eliot can rest in peace! This is a film about someone who has nothing and loves it that way. He gives motivational speeches in his spare time about wearing an empty backpack through life. Bingham might as well be dead.
Yep. Just like that old World War One hit, you can “wrap up your troubles in your old kitpack and smile, smile, smile.” The losers, Bingham tells us, are the ones who choose to have families and houses and a community to surround them. The winners have empty backpacks and believe in nothing.
Into this existential man’s life come two women who challenge his beliefs. The overly appropriately named Natalie Keener is a young exec who comes to the company where Bingham is the stellar employee, Integrated Strategic Management, and argues that firing can be done via Skype, eliminating thousands of miles of travel per year.
When Bingham raises a fuss over this coldhearted approach to a delicate task, he’s forced by his company to take Keener on her journey of learning across a United States filled with business closures and corporate dismissals.
Dealing with Ms. Keener isn’t enough to rock Bingham’s world–in Reitman’s view, and who would disagree? He has to meet someone as manipulative and cold and attractive as himself. Enter Alex Goran, who actually says to him, “Think of me as you, with a vagina.”
Love, modern style.
Guess you’re expecting a comeuppance. You’d be right about that–and correct if you imagine that Bingham is surprised by the turn of events in his life. Both his girlfriend and the young lady who he’s mentoring teach him a few lessons about life.
The problem here is, as a friend remarked to me, is that Up in the Air is a soulless movie about soullessness.
Audiences disagree with me and my friend. Clooney’s purported awakening to life’s responsibilities moves them. But the film feels as manipulative as Alex and Ryan. Why should we care about Ryan’s fate? Because he’s attractive?
Reitman has made a film that goes beyond the satire of Thank You for Smoking and the endless sassiness of Juno. But he hasn’t crafted a genuine drama here–just the façade of one. Up in the Air will entertain you. Don’t blame me if you feel cheap and used as the final credits roll.