(No longer in theaters)
Daniel Dubiecki, Jeffrey Clifford, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman
Dec 4, 2009
Up in the Air has a confident hum. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who specializes in flying from city to city to inform workers they’ve been laid off, help manage their emotions, and hand them their “packet”—severance, COBRA, etc. On the side, he gives motivational speeches on lightening the metaphorical backpack of one’s life. Bingham tells us in voice-over that he’s only at home in the air, and that in the past year he has spent 322 days on the road and “43 miserable days” in his nearly bare Omaha apartment. He’s cool, sharp, brisk—but we can see where the movie’s headed from 3,000 miles away. Bingham has to learn that connections aren’t just things you make in airports.
The film is based on a novel by Walter Kirn, a former New York book critic, who captures an existential state of weightlessness into which despair slowly creeps. Director Jason Reitman was likely drawn by its similarity to his 2005 film Thank You for Smoking: The hero is both hip and lost, and embodies the romance and hustle of capitalism but also the soullessness. With a bright, boppy touch, he transforms Kirn’s cancerous solipsism into a lickety-split, romantic banter-fest with up-to-the-minute recession pathos. Introduced as a charmer with a set of disingenuous spiels, Bingham comes to stand for old-fashioned humanism when his company hires an Ivy League squirt (Anna Kendrick) who devises a way to fire people via video link.
Up in the Air is poised to be a smash, and Clooney—slim, dark, perfectly tailored—glamorizes insincerity in a way that makes you want to go out and lie. His scenes with Vera Farmiga as his rootless female counterpart are beautifully shaped. (They compare notes on credit cards and rental-car outfits like a pair of mating supercomputers.) As his nemesis turned sidekick, Kendrick is an uppity brat in a suit trying to project grown-up competence. She has the perfect vibe—yet the first time you see her, you know everything you’re going to know. You also know you’re being manipulated by someone as expert as Bingham.
I don’t mean to suggest that Reitman is an operator. He clearly believes he’s being true to his subject even as he steers his boat into the shallows. The producers placed ads in Detroit and St. Louis for recently laid-off workers, and Reitman puts some of them onscreen in a montage of people receiving the bad news. Their pain feels authentic, but the way Reitman skips among them suggests they’re interchangeable. I know he didn’t mean to, but he has turned the poor and desperate into montage fodder.