Thursday, March 4, 2010

Film Review | Up in the Air

Ups and Downs

by Thomas Delapa

Meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). He’s a professional terminator. No relation to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bingham jets around the U.S. methodically firing employees at the behest of their craven employers. Suave and impersonal, Bingham loves his job. And in today’s Great Recession, he’s never short of good work.

An undercapitalized satire of corporate downsizing, Up in the Air is tough and lofty on the outside, soft and squishy on the inside. You keep hoping for a first-class social comedy out of director Jason Reitman, but he settles for coach.

There’s nothing awry with Reitman’s opening takeoff on Walter Kirn’s 2002 novel. Under the credits, we’re serenaded with a pop version of Woody Guthrie’s populist “This Land is Your Land” as we see sky-high views of cities across the U.S. Back on Earth, Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) gloats, “This is one of the worst times for America ...This is our moment.” For a company that specializes in doing the dirty business of business, happy days are here again.

As Bingham, Clooney is a pin-sharp hatchet man in suit and tie. Bingham not only relishes his job, but loves his nonstop rootless existence. A moonlighting motivational speaker, “Moving is living” is his slogan. He’s no more at home than he is on the road, a chilly-blue blur of airports, motor hotels and rental cars. His sublime goal in life is neither family nor fame; instead he’s aiming to be only the seventh person to ascend to 10 million frequent-flyer miles.

When playing it slick and confident, Clooney stays on course—and so does Reitman. In quick documentary-like montages, Bingham coolly dismisses a parade of devastated employees, many asking him in parting, “How do you live with yourself?” In an age where corporate-worker loyalty has gone the way of the adding machine, employees can be downsized, outsourced and red-slipped in a stock tick, even while inept Wall Street barons are bailed out with federally-stitched golden parachutes.

But Reitman (Juno) does his own bailing out, leaving audiences suspended mid-air while he comically humanizes Bingham and company. Heady after another round of firings, Bingham is called back to his Omaha headquarters and teamed with Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a fresh-faced “efficiency expert” who thinks his face-to-face methods are obsolete. While superficially a hard egg, Natalie is just a soft-boiled romantic under her shell. Inefficiently cast as Bingham’s conscience, Kendrick shrinks on the screen, coming off as high-heeled Munchkin, not steely corporate henchman.

By dwelling on Ryan’s and Natalie’s petty troubles, Reitman downsizes the satire to practically nothing. During one of his last trips, Bingham takes a detour to mid-America Wisconsin for his sister’s wedding, taking along Alex (Vera Farmiga), seemingly his ideal merger partner in libido and credit cards. Up in Wisconsin, Up in the Air takes another nose dive, landing in an exquisitely (and unironically) banal wedding party that is meant to teach Bingham the glories of homespun family life. Taken together, Clooney—one of Hollywood’s most stratospheric men—and this bunch is a cheesy, airsick-inducing combination of Brie and Velveeta.


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