Reviewed by Richard von Busack of Metroactive.com
It is the almost-greats that give you the gray hairs, and Up in the Air, with its occasionally amoral look at a predator's life, sometimes deserves its advance word. Mostly, it is a movie about George Clooney in motion. Jason Reitman's Up in the Air shows Ryan Bingham (Clooney) packing for his journeys, zipping up a leather carrying case for his ties as if it were a gunman’s holster.
You can't underestimate the appeal of watching a man in charge, moving through the crowds in a good-looking suit. If you don’t count Jon Hamm, Clooney is the last movie actor alive who looks macho in a jacket and tie, instead of fussy or metrosexual. Clooney even makes the reliable humiliation of removing shoes for the TSA's plastic buckets look like a dance step.
This is Bond stuff, after all—the turbulence-free jet porn that's been attractive ever since Sean Connery crossed a concourse in Dr. No. But
Up in the Air means to dig in a bit deeper, and that's where the film starts to get infuriating.
Ryan is on the road 51 weeks a year. He works for a company that hires hatchet men to dispatch employees and hand them a glossy folder with their exit benefits. One day, he reports to his boss (Jason Bateman) in Omaha and discovers that the company has decided to save money by doing the firings online.
This technological approach is the brainchild of a pert new employee named Natalie (Anna Kendrick). Ryan argues that the business needs a personal touch; the two are paired up, in the familiar old-cop, young-cop dynamic. Having this inexperienced girl along interrupts Ryan’s regularly scheduled no-strings flings with a fellow constant business traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga).
You'll forgive a real star any crimes, even if his character is by most definitions (including mine) sc**. The acrid first half is the best part—Clooney makes us admire Ryan’s gamesmanship and understand his loftiness. The titles (titles are always carefully wrought in a Reitman film) show the cities and plains of America from 30,000 feet, scored to a gospel version of "This Land Is Your Land."
I agree with Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix that a sharper film might have accessed that anthem’s answer song, "The Big Country" by Talking Heads, with its chorus "I wouldn't live here if you paid me to."
This early sellout—picking Woody Guthrie over the sarcastic rejoinder—forecasts how Reitman will lose his nerve. Reitman's first movie, Thank You for Smoking, turns out to be a fluke. It’s dismaying to watch a talent who seemed like an ace satirist turning into a Cameron Crowe-level moralizer.
A banal Wisconsin wedding sequence—meant to be this movie’s heart—shows us how Clooney’s character crumbles, the winter light hitting him bright and hard as he sits in one of the tiny chairs in a children’s Sunday school classroom. This is the perfect spot for the lesson we are going to get. Ryan counsels his brother-in-law-to-be (Danny McBride); the runaway groom needs to hear about the pleasures of home and family.
Notoriously, in real life Clooney has been doing bloody fine without a wife and kids—though every television interviewer alive believes that he or she has a right to ask Clooney how this can possibly be. Consider Up in the Air as the actor's mea culpa for being single; that confession will probably win this magnetic performer a Best Actor Oscar (for this, considered along with similarly classic yet idiosyncratic work in Men Who Stare at Goats and Fantastic Mr. Fox). But how do you tolerate it when Ryan gets to the part of the sermon about how one’s happiest moments are never solitary? Isn’t even watching movies often a solitary pleasure?
The film wants us to equate two different kinds of toxicities—to draw a line between the corporate bloodletting that juices up stock portfolios and the present-tense
sex life that Ryan and Alex enjoy.
Too bad these two performers make it look like so much fun.
Farmiga is mainly used for her air of anxiety, and this is a holiday for her. She has grown succulent with the years; she's dreamy aFnd accommodating. But Reitman insists that there is a price to be paid for zipless f***ing, whether it's the lousy-comedy humiliation of Ryan falling into the water with his clothes on or the emotional reckoning when he realizes how much he feels for Alex.
Reitman really falls for Ryan's line that being laid off en masse can be a positive thing, just as the director argued that teen pregnancy can be a stabilizing force for a giddy girl in Juno. In the firing montages, Reitman blends amateurs with established actors. Zach Galifianakis plays, as always, a helpless slob; J.K. Simmons' Bob is a shrewd employee fobbed off by Ryan’s line about how good a career change can be, how it can help Bob get in touch with youthful aspirations he long ago forgot.
Actual unemployed Midwesterners are part of the firing line, so to speak. Brought in via a casting call, they wrap up the film by celebrating the help their families gave them after they got dumped from the workplace. Of course they're putting a good face on the experience—they’re in front of a movie camera. Who wants to hire an embittered ex-employee? Reitman’s inane faux populism ought to chill the spine, but instead it's going to win all kinds of awards.
UP IN THE AIR (R; 109 min.), directed by Jason Reitman, written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kim, photographed by Eric Steelberg and starring George Clooney and Vera Famiga.