Up In The Air

Writer director Jason Reitman follows his charming teen-pregnancy comedy Juno with an adaptation of Walter Kim’s novel, Up In The Air, in which introverted HR specialist Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), travels around the US firing people from struggling corporations.

With his perfectly knotted ties and dapper suits, Bingham comes across as smooth and successful executive but he lives a strange life. Home, a mostly-empty apartment in Omaha, is just somewhere to store his suitcases. There is no Mrs Bingham, and he avoids contact with his family, even as his younger sister (Melanie Lynsky) prepares to get married. In his wry voice-over, he tells us all about the “322 days a year” he spends in airports and hotels, sharing a few tips about how to be a savvy frequent-flyer. Among his most prized possessions are various loyalty cards, oblongs of embossed plastic that allow him to access the jet-set lifestyle - perks and upgrades - with a sweep of his hand and a smile.

Bingham works for a company run by the up-tight Craig (Jason Bateman), who specialise in firing employees for corporations that lack the skills or the decency to do it themselves. Business is booming. Every day, he arrives at reception, sets up a desk with his list of names and piles of severance brochures and starts his spiel about “seeking out new opportunities”. Throughout the film Reitman employs long sequences of face-to-face interviews with the newly downsized as they talk about unemployment. If you’re wondering why these people seem normal and sincere, it’s because they are. Barring a few extended cameos from familiar faces JJ Simmons and Zach Galifianakis, these are ordinary real people telling their own stories of how they coped with losing their jobs.

Even with those touches of poignant realism, Up In The Air remains a comedy derived from a character study. The story, like Bingham’s face, lights up when he meets kindred-spirit Alex (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar and they start comparing the size of their stacks of plastic, like Las Vegas gamblers. Before long, they are synchronising their calendars and arranging rendezvous on the road, pit-stops across America that slowly thaw Bingham’s frozen concepts of romance. Then, new developments at work pose a challenge to his set routines. Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an ambitious junior executive, has come up with a new way of firing people over the internet. Bingham is appalled. Not only does the technology threaten to do to him what he has been doing unto others for years, it removes the human equation from his work. His well-practised common-sense lines will sound hollow when coming through a tinny computer speaker. His sympathetic brow-wrinkles and comforting nods will lose their effects when played out on a flat-screen monitor.

Even if the sight of a smiling George Clooney in a well-cut suit has become a cinematic cliché, the actor extends himself in the role of a lonely executive to give an honest, heartfelt performance that plays up to his own image as a smooth-talking charmer as much as it exposes him as a solitary figure, lost in a plush, premium-grade world of single-serving meals and tiny shampoo bottles. His performance is matched in nuance and vulnerability by Farmiga, who is much more than mere romantic window-dressing and whose back-story, when revealed, offers a salty ironic bite.

Although fashioned from the pain and misery of sudden unemployment, under Reitman’s certain direction Up In The Air finds a delicate balance between zeitgeisty comedy and trenchant reportage to become a signature film for our recessionary times.

1 comment:

Xweing said...

Great summary!

Loved the movie!!