(Another review to bide me some time. This time a lauded best-of-the-year film that I hardly think exels to those heights. Originally published on In Review Online. Best of 2009: Film on Monday.)
Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air feels like a sales pitch, and to credit of the film’s manipulative powers, we actually start to believe that a layoff can be a new beginning. Unfairly arming himself with the charms of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, Reitman’s take on the 21st century American Dream is as slick as it is distasteful, and he expects us not only to embrace it but also to buy it. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a mover and a shaker who gleefully spends 322 days a year flying around the country firing people. His only obligations are to his job and occasional libido flare-up, and his strongest emotional ties are those to his travel reward cards. As if his lifestyle is something to strive for, Bingham also tours the motivational speaking circuit preaching corporate jargon with a cheeky seminar titled “What’s in your backpack?” But Ryan’s modus operandi is about to be put to the test: a newly hired efficiency expert (Anna Kendrick) threatens to pull him out of the sky; a beautiful and exciting woman (Farmiga) starts tugging on his heart strings; and an obligatory family wedding opens the door to sentimentality.
Thanks to Clooney, Ryan is perhaps one of the most likeable jerks you are likely to find in film this year, and Farmiga, as the equally crass Alex, is an ideal sparring partner. The two embellish their business travel routine with an on-going, no-strings-attached affair that is almost as enjoyable for us as it seems to be for them. The introduction of Kendrick, as the young college grad Natalie, jeopardizes Clooney and Farmiga’s good work. Natalie has been hired to cut costs and ironically downsize the downsizing firm. Unwilling to be grounded in Omaha year around, Ryan offers to show Natalie the art of firing and the value of his face-to-face ‘personal touch.’ The buddy narrative that evolves between the two of them is overwrought by Natalie’s incredulous over-confident yet wet behind the ears characterization. Natalie’s naiveté is balanced by Alex’s maturity, with the adolescent self-centered Ryan stuck in the middle. In the end, it is Jason Bateman who strikes the perfect pose. With his quaffed beard and midwestern sense of flamboyant style, he embodies the sleazy persona that Clooney only mimics.
There are several sequences in Up in the Air when Bingham’s downsizing victims speak directly into the camera in successive rapid-fire responses to being let go. What might usually sound like canned hyperbole (“How do you sleep at night?” “After 25 years, this is what I get?” “What am I suppose to tell my family?”) is much more acute because the bitterness is real. The handful of characters in these roles are not characters at all, they are people who have truly lost their jobs otherwise known as layoff survivors. Post financial collapse, Reitman and crew thought it might be callous to make a rom-com romp about people getting laid off. They set out to do some research, placing a fake ad about a documentary, to solicit some authenticity to the glossed up character driven drivel. It works and it doesn’t. The gravity of the on-screen venting is potent—especially since most of us know someone who has found themselves in a similar situation in the past year—but juxtaposing it with Clooney’s allure and Kendrick’s overacting only cheapens the con.
Doing his best to climb out of the Diablo Cody slums, Reitman’s swindle is a success. With three feature films under his belt, this one certainly seems to be the charm. I for one, however, cannot accept his cynicism with any sort of conscience, no matter how suave, convincing or entertaining (and make no mistake, Up in the Air is all three of those things.) Regardless of how you read the ending, Ryan Bingham’s blank stare at the airport departure table acknowledges his realization that the trench he has dug for himself may just be too deep for him to escape. After years of emptying his proverbial backpack, he has nothing but the artificial love of the travel industry and a stack of pink slips. Satire is displaced for sympathy, and Bingham is our modern American hero. George Clooney delivers the most enjoyable layoff you will likely ever experience, but only if you are willing to accept his unsavory personal and professional detachment from human compassion.