Rating: 2.5 out of 5
In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate hatchet man thriving in an economic depression.
Bingham’s job is to fly from city to city in America, firing employees for downsizing companies whose bosses “don’t have the balls to do it themselves”.
It’s unpleasant work, but one that Bingham is well-suited (pun intended) to perform. Though he speaks with apparent sincerity to the unfortunate Joes and Janes he has to sack – urging them, for instance, to look at their changed circumstances as an ‘opportunity’ – there is a fundamental disconnect between Bingham and the everyday sob stories he has to endure.
The source of this disconnect is a kind of nihilism; Bingham believes in travelling light, both literally and figuratively; he eschews marriage, family ties and mortgage payments, dismissing these as so much excess baggage humans choose to carry in the over-crammed suitcases of their lives.
Then one day, Bingham meets a sensuous, sharp-witted fellow-traveller, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar, and the two hit if off, comparing (as you do) the relative merits of different credit cards and frequent flyer memberships.
They hook up for the night, and make arrangements to see each other casually between future flights. A romance between the two drifters begins to blossom, restrained only by Bingham’s inherent disdain for the trappings of commitment.
But even the toughest of cynics – at least as manufactured by Hollywood and portrayed by the ever-charming Clooney – possesses a sensitive core. Bingham falls in love with Alex and, accordingly, his views about relationships and the World In General begin to change.
He even starts to feel sorry for the poor sods he has to fire, and forms an unlikely bond with a peppy, go-getting upstart (Anna Kendrick) whom his company has hired to upgrade their processes.
Due largely to her youth and fixation with Internet technology, Anna struggles to comprehend the need for direct human communication in the sensitive matter of liquidating workers’ livelihoods.
But she often gets it right in matters of the heart, and urges – or rather, screams at - Bingham to pursue a deeper relationship with Alex.
As expected, Bingham takes her advice, and invites Alex to his sister’s wedding – an event he showed little enthusiasm for earlier in the film. Here, the story veers into unabashed sentimentality, as Bingham declares his love for Alex and engineers a sudden reconnection with the family he never knew.
Now, lest you think this serves as the film’s conventional happy ending, let me assure you it is not.
Reitman and his co-writer Sheldon Turner, perhaps hoping to reflect the disappointments of the “real world”, have fashioned a denouement (which I shan’t reveal here) that muddies the film’s otherwise straightforward message: people need people.
The effect is less unsettling than it is frustrating. The characters and tone of the film ultimately do not gel; the movie is more simplistic than its existential premise.
Still, by pitching itself as a ‘serious’ comedy, Up in the Air has garnered six nominations at this year’s Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
It’s a baffling reward for a movie that – at least for this writer – entertains but fails to connect.
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).