mon 17/06/2024

Up in the Air | reviews, news & interviews

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

The man who fell to earth: George Clooney's high flyer gets his wings clipped

World-class flirting: George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air

By trade Ryan Bingham is something called a Termination Facilitator. I'm not entirely sure if that's meant as a euphemism, but it sounds kind of scary and in fact, played by George Clooney with lubricated charm, Bingham is a hit-man contracted out to fire people from companies who don't have the cojones or the courtesy to break the bad news themselves.

The procession of schmucks whom we see him fire so sympathetically, so efficiently, thrusting a glossy brochure into their hands when asked about the awkward issues, are played (most of them) by non-actors, reliving for the film the real trauma of losing their jobs. I hope they were well-paid for their pains at least.

Bingham has a sideline as a motivational speaker at management conferences. "What's in your backpack?" is his catchphrase. His own designer trolley bag doesn't contain much more than a change of clothes. Indeed his wallet is probably heavier, bulging as it does with a stack of platinum credit cards and VIP lounge passes. Sincerely, can there be anyone left on this planet who still thinks flying is a glamorous, sexy activity? Well, yes: as demonstrated in the clip below, this guy glides through airports with never a care, sailing through security without breaking either sweat or stride, thanks to slip-on shoes and a well-honed technique (never stand in line behind children or old people).

Once comfortably ensconced in the mile-high club, he can look down on the struggles of ordinary mortals with Olympian detachment. Bingham spends 43 days a year at his sterile apartment in Omaha, where his company is based (asked where he lives, he gestures at the first-class plane seat where he's sitting, as usual, and simply replies, "Right here"). The precept of keeping it minimal applies in spades to his emotional baggage too, of course.

Directed by Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman, Up in the Air has quite a lot going for it. Like his two previous films, Thank You For Smoking and Juno, it's distinctive, entertaining and sophisticated, with top-flight dialogue and performances; Alexander Payne's Sideways, also a comedy about male commitmentphobes, is another rare example. Yet, unlike Payne's film, there is something dispassionate, cold as ice at its heart.

Up_in_the_AirThe trouble begins with Bingham: as the above description hints, he's a colourful, meticulously constructed, iconic character, a Gordon Gekko de nos jours. But is he a flesh-and-blood human being? It's a tribute to Clooney's skill that he brings this smug creature alive and even makes you momentarily root for him. The actor has frequently shown himself prepared to make a perfect fool of himself in films like The Men Who Stare at Goats or O Brother, Where Art Thou? And he will play dislikeable characters too: in Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty and Michael Clayton, in which film Clooney's slick corporate fixer could almost be Bingham's soulmate. The fact remains, though: he is a plot device, one whose changes and psychological nuances you never quite buy into.

In the course of the narrative, Bingham is challenged by three characters, all female. One is a brash junior employee - a delicious comic turn from Anna Kendrick - who has the cost-cutting idea of conducting the sackings on webcam, a proposal that Bingham, his frequent flyer status thus threatened, must smartly head off at the pass. The second (Vera Farmiga, gorgeous) is another business traveller and world-class flirt, his sometime sexual partner when their diaries permit it, and also, it may just turn out, his nemesis. The third is his kid sister, who needs him at her wedding in Wisconsin, thus forcing him to tarry awhile in flyover country.

Based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air is, so it would seem, still a consummate story for our times. But there are an awful lot of hoary clichés lurking around the edge. Family relationships, ordinary, salt-of-the-earth people, small everyday pleasures, check shirts and pot roasts and going home for Thanksgiving: these sorts of things (so we're told) all count for much more than high-rolling, lonesome luxury. You can see the fifth-act plot twist hoving into view on the horizon long before Clooney clocks it. Will it come as a surprise if I reveal that the smug high-flyer will be brought back down to earth with a mighty bump? It is, I think, a telling index of the weakness of this year's Oscar race that this sleek, slight film has emerged as a leading contender.

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