Well-acted, initially engaging, but finally facile and rather dispiriting, Up in the Air commences with a good hook: a man whose job it is to fire people, about to experience his own life travails. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a character that his creators seem to have competing concepts of, however. He's presented as a rootless, solitary corporate schmoozer who loves his life in hotels and airports and the faux-bonhomie of customer service, an archetype of modern commercialism incarnate, like a leftover Jack Lemmon character, and as a vaguely honourable defender of human values in an increasingly inhuman working world, like a leftover Paul Newman character. This schism is one that director Jason Reitman and his screenwriting partner Sheldon Turner (working from Walter Kirn’s novel) don’t seem to have thought out in any meaningful way. Ryan moves about the modern
the way other people move about their own home, and indeed that’s how Ryan thinks of the country, with his intricate understanding of the best car hire companies and the benefits of elite consumer status, as one big playpen full of shiny pretty things. United States
Of course, Ryan’s jet-set self-satisfaction is ruffled when three significant developments in his life coincide, as they must. He meets a chic but saucy fellow traveller, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), with whom he commences an affair that is consummated whenever the pair manage to end up in the same city or close enough: she advises him to regard her as “yourself with a vagina”, but their tryst soon proves so satisfying that he’s tempted to consider her an actual, like, girlfriend. Simultaneously, he’s saddled with young go-get-‘em Princeton graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who’s convinced their mutual boss, the spurious Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman in the Jason Bateman role again), to try adapting their business to the internet age and simply sack people online, an idea Ryan strenuously objects to. He’s given the task by Craig of showing Natalie what the job actually entails, confronting the gruesome emotional distress, hostility, and despair unleashed in such situations. Ryan’s a smoothie in every sense, capable of midwifing people through the moment of crisis whilst preaching a pared-down life at business seminars, offering a fantasy world of perfect control through having nothing to control. A third roadbump is the lingering ghost of familial responsibility represented by his two sisters, Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey), the latter of whom is getting married, requiring Ryan to attempt to fulfil some long-neglected sibling responsibilities.
Reitman deserves some credit for not belabouring a lot of throwaway details that many filmmakers would have wrung for every last drop of pathos or humour, like Julie having to uncomfortably inform Ryan that the job of giving her away is taken. He also builds an admirable sense of a provisional fellowship and the kinds of accidental joys that Ryan and Alex are adept at discovering in their life, when they sneak themselves and Natalie into a party for a posse of professionals and spend a joyous drunken night cutting loose. Reitman also offers a keen visual motif in the early segments of the film in offering grandiose aerial shots of the America that Ryan flies over, as in the opening credits, where a disarmingly funky rendition of “The Land is Your Land” scores the beautiful vistas of agriculture, landscape and urban sprawl. This communicates coherently Ryan’s love for exploring his country and viewing it from such an angle, even if he has to peddle mercenary claptrap to the victims of corporate misfortune whilst pretending it’s empowering, and explicating his tactile admiration for and yet divorcement from that world, for which, when he sets down, he represents something not unlike the visitations of the Red Death. Eric Steelberg’s photography lends the film a sharp but still malleable visual beauty.
Unfortunately, Up in the Air resolves into an utterly prosaic, puff piece of a film. Much like its hero, it never plants its feet in one spot long enough to delve with any depth. Reitman’s sit-com dialogue style and cut-to-the-chase sense of dramatic shaping precludes that – for instance, Natalie’s romantic life, the reason why she accepted a job that’s beneath her in the first place, and its curtailing, is a sub-plot poorly set up and insubstantially explored. The deliberated attempts at anti-cliché feel contrived, like having Ryan do one of those “hero dashes away from place/event/person that encapsulates what's wrong with his life to chase after the thing/person that’s important to him” runners, only to get an emotional kick in the teeth (and, as in virtually any other variation on that scene, it’s an action weirdly lacking in consequence). This kind of smoke-and-mirrors dramaturgy, like the resolution in which, tragi-comically, Ryan’s life remains exactly as he had once liked it but now seems irrevocably spoilt, leaves the film bordering on pointlessness. Reitman has no capacity whatsoever to communicate the emotions of his characters through changing the tempo and compass of his filmmaking; instead, much of the last half-hour is taken up by musical montages to try and convey disaffection. The punch-line of Ryan and Alex’s relationship, whilst reasonably affecting, is crass in its goose-gander inversion and deflating purpose. Clooney, whilst smooth in his role, seems far too innately intelligent and soulful to play a man as shallow as Ryan’s supposed to be. Nonetheless, he, Farmiga, and Kendrick share a great chemistry that makes the middle portion of the film far more engaging than the project as a whole deserves, and some good character turns from the likes of J. K. Simmons help. And Sam Elliot’s in there; he doesn’t really get to do anything, but I’m always glad when Sam Elliott turns up.
Worse yet, the film, for all its lip service to the horrors of dissociating business from humanity, has little time for its theoretical relevance: in terms of where the story leads, Ryan and Natalie’s job could be almost any fill-in-the-blank obnoxious corporate stuff, and the consequences of what they do, evinced by the suicide of one person they’ve dismissed, is bizarrely, smugly laid aside, as part of a character’s coming of age. The film cumulatively has absolutely nothing to say about modern life other than the homiest bromides: family is important, shit occasionally happens, learn to move on. Reitman offers up interviews of people who have actually been through the experience of being downsized, interspersed amongst the dramatic scenes to give his film the illusory substance of something to say about coping with such travails, but what’s actually going on in the flesh of the drama is readily familiar from other films, as recent as In Good Company and as old as The Apartment. Whilst the film mimics courage in saying that sad things are just part of the scheme of life, Reitman has no actual outrage, sorrow or engagement with the world he portrays: he’s safe in Hollywoodland. The cumulative effect is a movie that disturbingly embodies rather than critiques the alienation of professionals.