Up in the Air

Film: Up in the Air
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Faminga
Runtime: 109 mins
Review: Michael Allard
Rating: ***

If you hadn’t seen Juno, you might be forgiven for thinking that writer/director Jason Reitman likes nothing more than getting up, close and personal with people we love to hate. But Up in the Air‘s Ryan Bingham is quite a different creature to Thank You For Smoking’s tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor. The ingredients are there: he’s a self-centred motivational speaker, with little time for his family, and a successful downsizer, flying all over the United States sacking employees on behalf of bosses unwilling to do the dirty work.

But he’s also George Clooney, not in his usual political thriller or wacky comedy mode but as a Danny Ocean who didn’t turn to crime or fall for Julia Roberts. Watching Clooney feels like there’s never been a role more suited to him – and yet he doesn’t seem to have to bring much to his dialogue other than that charming smile and, come the end, an endearing newfound sense of vulnerability.

The bachelor image provides a template for Clooney’s surroundings, with not a trace of the air-conditioning or cleaning staff of the hotel rooms and airport lobbies that make up the film’s main set. In this world, the fashionable suits and accessories don’t just look good, but are a source of comfort.

For Reitman, this is a risky decision which doesn’t quite pay off. No matter how seductive he makes Bingham and his routine, we still know that some kind of guilt is going to creep in, and once the wheels are set in motion the events are a tad predictable. Some life lessons are in order, and we know they’ll come thanks to his sister’s small-town wedding, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a bright, young, overly-ambitious colleague who needs to be shown the ropes, and Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent-flyer who is a perfect companion – “Think of me as you, but with a vagina” – but who might not be as disposable as she seems.

The journey itself is a lot of fun, that is if you’re someone who buys into its telling. It plays out like a road movie dedicated to the different faces of America – only we’re travelling in business class en route. The dialogue is great and the characters thoroughly believable, with especially stand out performances from some of the unlucky office-workers Ryan and Natalie visit. The fact that the high-concept plotline has blatant echoes of films like The Accidental Tourist and About Schmidt doesn’t seem too important when the language is so fresh and one-liners so hilarious. And cleverly, Reitman doesn’t want to finish with a sense of closure, but leaves Bingham in a place where it’s too late to change the life that is no longer satisfying.

When Up In The Air tries to fly beyond these simple pleasures, it falters, as its recession-era context is enforced all too explicitly. Sacked workers become interviewees for a late montage, who talk about how their families are helping them through tough economic times. You can’t help thinking, though, that this film isn’t really a source of comfort. It has its subtleties and memorable moments, but is observant rather than profound, neither polemic nor catharsis.

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