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Up In The Air

There was a moment during the local preview for Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air last week when the large audience in the multiplex’s theater went virtually silent. There was nary a sound of any sort—no coughs, no feet shuffling—save for those coming from the theater speakers as up on the screen a stout, middle-aged man cried softly and seemed to stare into some newly opened void. He’d just been told that his job of many years duration was being terminated. The very young, no-nonsense woman delivering this dreaded news briskly told him to try to imagine a promising new future. The devastated guy responded that at 57, he had no future in today’s bear pit of a job market. They weren’t speaking to each other face-to-face. They were connected by a computer hook-up, even though they were in adjacent rooms, which lent an unsettling surreal quality to the scene. And as I said, the audience was rapt. As well it might be, since it’s one of the more absorbing—if disturbing—scenes in the movie.

And it’s worth noting, I think, that only a few minutes earlier, the people in the theatre had been audibly enjoying the engaging and often sharp-edged repartee that Up in the Air delivers. It blends moods rather slickly, but, as it transpires, this scene marks a turning point. Up in the Air, which Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel of the same title, centers on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a career transitions counselor for an Omaha, Nebraska firm. What that means is Ryan jets around the country to fire employees of companies that outsourced the task to firms like his. Ryan is a sort of combination gun for hire, life decisions advisor, and motivator—and, figuratively speaking, a shell game hustler. His role is to ease the newly redundant employees out the door and on the way to what he calculatingly tells them in a calmly earnest fashion will be a new world of opportunity (although the desired easefulness is really their now-former employers’, not theirs). Ryan isn’t just a pro, he has a stellar status in his field. And a life he loves—even if it’s really more a lifestyle than a life, a characterization to which Ryan might not object.

Leapfrogging around the country from airport to airport, Ryan revels in the scene-shifting impersonality of his existence, in the luxurious sterility of upscale hotels and expensive chain restaurants. He all but glories in the sense of being in the crowded skies and air terminals, but apart from the throngs, a member of a small traveling elite. He has his own very special career goal: to amass 10 million frequent flyer miles, and attain membership in a small airline-patron aristocracy. When he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another corporate traveler, in a hotel bar, they flirt by comparing their travel industry perks and privileges. In a little polished gem of an erotic-innuendo-dripping scene, she tries to tease out of him his mileage goal. It’s so well written, directed, and played that it resembles a contemporary version of some business from an Ernst Lubitsch film.

Up in the Air has been called a romantic comedy by everyone from the Buffalo News’ veteran movie reviewer Jeff Simon to the rightist political columnist George Will, and, to be sure, much of it plays like one. The burgeoning, on-the-fly relationship between Alex and Ryan gives the movie the interpersonal zing of a rom-com. But it’s a decidedly uncommon kind. It’s not just that Up in the Air is sharper-witted than any other recent example you can think of. Nor that there also are intermittent notes of muted social satire in it. These distinguish it, to be sure. It’s mostly because it develops a moralistic tendency, and winds up at a considerable distance from the genre’s territory. And the results are unhappy in more than one sense.

Ryan’s free-floating life faces a serious challenge when he’s called into the Omaha home office to meet Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a newly minted management school marvel with a proposed new system for terminations: by computer hook-up. Ryan’s entrepreneurially grubby and greedy boss (a curiously underutilized Jason Bateman) fairly smacks his lips at the prospect of eliminating all those travel costs Ryan and his less talented ilk rack up. Ryan is appalled, of course, for both personal and professional reasons.

And here, Reitman and his movie begin to unwind another kind of irony. Ryan’s entanglements with Natalie and Alex have unexpected and unaccustomed effects on him. He experiences something besides his deep enjoyment of his now-threatened glamorous, anomic liberty. When Up in the Air takes a side trip to Wisconsin for the wedding of Ryan’s niece his sentimental education pushes him toward a fateful discovery.

This is all a somewhat unwieldy package and not even someone as clever and technically adept as Reitman can handle it. There’s an increasingly evident flaw in the design. The movie has to abandon both the romantic theme and the muted and amused social critique it’s been relying on in order to resolve things on a personal plane. In Kirn’s more bleakly humorous novel, Ryan was a guy who made a reader feel both sympathy and discomfort. Reitman has opted for the poignantly sympathetic, and a rather arbitrary poetic justice at the end. Now we’re really not in rom-com territory, Toto!

Clooney is a blooming marvel. He’s as ingratiatingly smooth an operator as any American leading man in movie history, but he can also play chords of emotion and rue along with the light comedy. His performance holds his character together so well you can sometimes forget the strains.

Reitman’s movie includes one piece of material I found a little distasteful. As has been reported, he recruited unemployed people to relate their feelings on camera under the pretext that a documentary was being made. At the end, he plays some of their reactions and he’s selected them to emphasize their recourses to family, friends, and personal strength after they were fired. It’s almost as if the institutions and social forces the movie’s been gently nudging at didn’t matter after all.

Watch the trailer for Up In The Air

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