by Kathie Smith Film Horizon Line

Up in the Air — Jason Reitman

January 18, 2010

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air feels like a sales pitch, and thanks to 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 makes the 21st-century American Dream as slick as it is distasteful, and he expects us not only to embrace it but also 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 libidinal flare-up, and his strongest emotional ties are to his travel rewards cards. As if his lifestyle is something to strive for, Bingham also tours the motivational speaking circuit preaching corporate jargon in a cheeky seminar entitled “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 heartstrings; and an obligatory family wedding opens the door to sentimentality.

Thanks to Clooney, Ryan is perhaps one of the most likable jerks you are likely to find onscreen this year, and Farmiga, as the equally crass Alex, is an ideal sparring partner. The two embellish their business travel routine with an ongoing, no-strings-attached affair that’s 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-round, 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 thanks to Natalie’s over-confident yet wet-behind-the-ears characterization. Her naiveté is balanced by Alex’s maturity, with the adolescent, self-centered Ryan stuck in the middle. In the end, it’s Jason Bateman who strikes the perfect pose. With his coiffed beard and flamboyant, Midwestern sense of style, he embodies the sleazy persona that Clooney only mimics. Bingham’s downsizing victims speak directly into the camera in a sequence of successive rapid-fire responses to being let go. What might come off 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 performers of these roles are not characters at all; they’re people who’ve 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. So they did some research, placed a fake ad about a documentary, and used the results to lend some authenticity to their glossed-up character-driven drivel. It works and it doesn’t. The gravity of the onscreen venting is potent — especially since most of us know someone in a similar situation — 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. But it’s tough to 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’s left with nothing but the artificial affection 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’re willing to accept his unsavory personal and professional detachment from human compassion.