Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
“TO KNOW me is to fly with me,” says Ryan Bingham during an early monologue in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, recently landed in Bratislava. But in the soulless land of airline lounges, air miles programmes, hotel bathrobes and mini-bar miniatures, there’s not much to know about anyone — such is the point being made by a film that is part condemnation and part advertisement for the slick international brands of American Airlines, Hilton and George Clooney.
Bingham (Clooney) is a frequent flyer par excellence. Working as an outsourced hatchet man, he is called to anonymous office blocks across America to do what cowardly bosses are too nervous to do: look weary employees square in the eye and tell them “not to take things personally” but that they need to pack their desks and ship out.
“We take people at their most fragile and we set them adrift,” Bingham admits, stuffing a flimsy folder into their hands explaining precisely the final, financial value of their countless years dedicated service. Needless to say in these credit crunch days, he is a very busy man.
With his own job as safe as that of an undertaker — and his targets quickly resembling the unblinking undead — Bingham’s goals are more elevated: to reach 10 million frequent flyer points with his favourite airline and earn himself a chat with the captain and an embossed rewards card. If that sounds like an empty quest, you should see what it means in the flesh. Bingham has a winning smile to match any stewardess, and his eyes shine as brightly as the airport terminal fixtures, but there is a similar hollowness beneath; a vacuum where there should be a heart.
Bingham’s chat-up lines in hotel bars centre on the best deals available at car rental firms, and he also gives motivational speeches about how to develop a life without emotional baggage.
“Last year, I spent 322 days on the road,” he says, “which meant I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.”
Thus established as a man fuelled by wanderlust, he is a sitting duck for Hollywood’s unique tendency to force its characters out of their comfort zone and to face their ultimate fears. A hotshot graduate named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) suddenly suggests the firing could be done online, from the office in Nebraska, while at the same time Bingham starts to become entangled with what had once been a no-strings fling, Alex (Vera Farmiga). Both women are headstrong and complicated and, for the first time, Bingham’s presence might be greeted with a frown.
The writer/director Reitman made a splash a couple of years ago with Juno, an overrated but nonetheless warm portrait of teenage pregnancy and home-spun virtues set in the suburbia of a flyover state. And it’s not long before Bingham is hauled to Reitman’s familiar territory, a family wedding in wintry Wisconsin, where his proudly empty backpack begins to accumulate some clutter. The predictably modest, but unquestionably deeper, neuroses and disarming charms of family life gradually give the rover a belated grounding, and the film veers in a new direction.
This is only a qualified success. In recent months, Clooney has been seen on cinema screens in the guise of a corduroy-clad fox and a frazzled Iraq war veteran, but corporate Clooney is the best. Few actors carry a well-tailored business suit quite as sharply and his most focused career performances — in Michael Clayton, Good Night, And Good Luck, among others — never have him too far from the executive lounge.
This presents a problem for Up In The Air because Clooney himself deflates at a lower altitude. The film’s message is clear — no amount of complimentary pretzels are commensurate to loving relationships — but Clooney isn’t Clooney unless he’s shimmering among the clouds. He is as out of place in a low-budget, matt-finished indie flick as one of James Cameron’s 3D avatars.
This is a breezy diversion despite all that and there are plenty of solid performances to admire. Reitman’s best touch is to invite recently laid-off real folk to play their fired fictional brethren. Even Clooney can barely look them in the eye.
8. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Howard Swains