Up in the Air: Jason Reitman's film wants to calm us down
The last decade of film in America would have been a lot duller without George Clooney around. At least six of my favorite 30 or so movies of the millennium have starred the actor, including O Brother Where Art Thou, Solaris, Oceans Eleven, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, and Michael Clayton. Not only are these films superior entertainments, but also they are also artfully made and respectful of a viewer’s intelligence.Up in the Air, Clooney’s latest film, is also all of these things, but despite its perfectly timed grasp of the zeitgeist of our economic freefall, it is also a tad superficial, glossy where it needs to be gritty, slippery when it needs to be gripping. The film is both a commentary on corporate downsizing and a master class on the making of commercial grist masquerading as meaningful product. Up in the Air is witty, well written, superbly acted and profoundly slick. But it also shares a quality with the dozen or so employees in the movie who react on camera to being laid off. These are real people recreating the humiliation of their firing. As soon as they exit the screen, just as we exit the theater, they and the film are almost, but not altogether, forgettable.
This is not to say that Up in the Air isn’t immensely enjoyable. Clooney’s portrayal of a man who is so enamored of his isolation from the world that he doesn’t realize how lonely he is until he finally makes, and then loses, a real connection with someone, is yet another example of this actor’s singular genius at tapping our sympathies for a character who deserves a smack down. As Ryan Bingham, a hatchet man for big business who flies around the country firing people, he and director Jason Reitman capture the fluorescent dreariness of half-abandoned office spaces, the sterile bleakness of chain hotels, the manufactured joi de vivre of a trade show afterparty.
Bingham is a man with a soul nurtured on bland platitudes and hollow positivism. But then two women come into his life. Vera Farmiga, playing a female version of Bingham, who compare mileage point plans together in their first flirtatious moments, and Anna Kendrick, the new rising star in corporate firings who convinces their boss—an underused Jason Batemen—to fire people via iChat. What happens next isn’t always predictable, which is enough to distinguish Up In the Air as one of the better films in an otherwise barren year for American movies, but it does feel a bit too tidy at times. The reaction shots are brief, the emotional moments well timed, the indie emo music appropriately quirky.
Up in the Air doesn’t want to shake us up; it wants to calm us down. It’s great that the film’s final image leaves things, well, up in the air, but it isn’t satisfying as a call to action or as a frustrating blurt of outrage. The movie wants to say we as a culture, with our eyes perpetually glued to portable screens, tapping out messages to people we never have to see face to face, are walling off the one trait we share with no other living being on the planet—our compassion. But Up in the Air doesn’t seem to get how depressing that is. The idea that we have nowhere to go and we’ll be there soon should lead to a “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” outburst, but instead we’re left with a shrug.