Up in the Air, the new film from director Jason Reitman, feels at times like an overlong commercial for American Airlines, Hilton Hotels and Hertz Car Rental. Yet it expects to be taken seriously as a study in the loneliness of the long-distance business traveller.
That battle between filthy lucre and artistic pretension is just one of the many conflicting impulses tearing the film apart. Up in the Air is about The Recession and Alienation in Late Capitalist Society. It is an attempt to tap into The Zeitgeist. But it also wants to be a romantic comedy. The result is a film that manages to be simultaneously slick and uneven.
Reitman, the talented director of Juno and Thank You for Smoking, gets the film off to a promising start as we’re introduced to Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.
Bingham is employed in what is euphemistically called career transition counselling. The company he works for is an inversion of a recruitment agency — it offers outsourced firing services.
In the early and most enjoyable parts of the film, Up in the Air plays out as a hilarious send-up of corporate foibles in the midst of an economic meltdown. Characters in the film spin out buzzwords like “glocal” (a contraction of global and local) and dream up ways to fire people with the maximum efficiency using scripted responses and videoconferencing.
The corporate love of mystical mumbo-jumbo isn’t spared either — Bingham lyrically describes himself as a guardian ferrying wounded souls through limbo. He has a sideline business as a motivational speaker who imparts wisdom about how to avoid commitments and entanglements.
Clooney doesn’t miss a beat as he glides from city to city to tell hapless employees that they have lost their jobs. He radiates charm as he glibly convinces those whose services he terminates that a change in their lives might be for the best.
Bingham’s best relationships are with travel brands (thus the many product placements), not people. He has made a philosophy out of avoiding emotional entanglements in favour of a life spent in aeroplanes, airport lounges and business hotels; his major aims are to keep moving and to accumulate 10m air miles. “The slower we move, the faster we die,” says Bingham, who spends 320 days a year away from home.
Up in the Air is based on a book of the same name by Walter Kirn, which was published in the midst of the 2001 dot-com boom. It deviates from the book by introducing a love interest for Bingham in the form of Alex Goran (played by Vera Farmiga of The Departed) as well as a young colleague and surrogate daughter, Natalie Keener.
Soon after these two characters are introduced into the film, it starts to change gears. His relationships with the two women, alongside his sister’s looming wedding, prompt Bingham to start questioning his way of life. The move from comedy to romantic comedy to moralistic drama isn’t a smooth one. It doesn’t help that Clooney can’t seem to channel the existential anguish to make his character’s transition a convincing one.
Keener (played by Anna Kendrick of Twilight fame) is an ambitious whippersnapper with a bright idea for saving the company money by firing people over a Web camera.
Bingham takes her out on the road to show her the ropes, keenly aware that her idea could spell the end of his nomadic lifestyle. Kendrick is convincing as a know-it-all who quickly finds herself out of her depth, but some of her exchanges with Clooney simply don’t ring true.
The initial scenes between Goran and Bingham fizz with chemistry as the pair trade barbs and kisses. Goran, a fellow nomad, tells Bingham: “Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” It’s not long, however, before a lovelorn Bingham is running through airports in slow motion like a character from Love, Actually. Is Reitman subverting rom-com conventions or is he playing it straight? Either way, it doesn’t work.
Many of the people that Up in the Air shows reacting to the loss of their jobs are Americans telling their real-life stories to Reitman’s camera — and one can’t help wondering what they really make of his conclusion that love is all you need. Up in the Air isn’t kind enough to its characters to be satisfying as a romantic comedy.
Neither is it hard enough on them to make for convincing satire. It’s not as winsome as Juno, nor as biting as Thank You for Smoking. It doesn’t reconcile its tragic and comic elements as deftly as About Schmidt or Sideways. Much like Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air is lost in limbo. — Lance Harris, TechCentral