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Up In The Air

USA 2009
Directed by
Jason Reitman
98 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Up In The Air

Synopsis: Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for the Career Transition Corporation, a company that fires people for other companies. He spends 322 days of the year flying from city to city his only ain in life to accumulate a million frequent flyer points. His well-ordered life is about to be jolted by two women. 

Up In The Air is one of those films that is so superficially seductive it conceals its deeper flaws, its satirical veneer glossing over what is as glib as a mainstream Hollywood rom-com.

The film’s underpinning opposition is between the rapacious sensibility of corporate America and the home-spun virtues of the little people that in fact make up America and that Clooney flies over 322 days of the year. Clooney’s Ryan is like a professional executioner – there’s a job to be done and with pride he tries to make it as painless for the to-be-executed as possible. He works his chosen no-baggage lifestyle into a philosophy but he’s not bitter or cynical about it and there’s really no grounds for disliking him. When he meets smart and sexy Alex (Vera Farmiga) he seems to have found a perfect match. As she says in one of the film’s least felicitous lines "I'm you with a vagina". They both appear blissfully content with their peripatetic lives (we don’t find out what she does)..

On the other had we have no problems disliking Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a buttoned-down little 23 year-old go-getter with a business/psychology degree who in the name of increased productivity and thus, profits, is proposing to replace Ryan’s old school human touch with firing-by-internet. Ryan objects to his boss (Jason Bateman) who sends the two on a field trip to see who is right.

I haven’t read the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn on which the film is based but as I understand it, Reitman and co-scriptwriter Sheldon Turner have turned it into a Capraesque story of awakening to the important things in life with Clooney as a modern day Jimmy Stewart coming to see the error of his ways. But this is not the 1940s and Capra’s simplistic homilies don’t fit the realities of modern life. Reitman’s film completely fails to resolve the disparity between the self-interest at the heart of consumer capitalism and self-denying values of  family life.  So…..

Warning: plot spoilers follow

When Natalie gets dumped by her boyfriend (by a text message) she loses her sang-froid. It turns out she followed him for love and that she dreams of marriage, kids, etc etc. But…so what? That doesn’t make her a nice person.  To realize her dream she’s quite happy to destroy other people’s. 

Shortly thereafter Natalie upbraids Ryan for his lack of commitment to Alex. Particularly after she makes a hash of firing people both to their face and via a computer screen it seems she’s turning a corner and Ryan becomes positively paternal towards her. But…when they are recalled she shows no change of heart, begins to implement her internet concept, training “termination engineers”. Meanwhile Ryan meekly falls into line with the new order.

The reason for Ryan’s submissiveness is that he is entertaining notions of building a little nest with Alex. (In a sub-plot he convinces his younger sister’s reluctant fiancé that “everyone needs a co-pilot”). He duly trots off to Chicago, her home town (don’t ask how he knew where she lived) only to discover that she’s married with kids (also don’t ask why, since he’s had sex with her that he didn’t know she had had kids). In a subsequent phone call she tells him that she’s an “adult” and advises him to grow up. But …not only does this suggest that Ryan is a lamentable judge of character and remarkably naive, makes hitherto charmingly candid Alex an adulterous liar and, most incongruously, confirms Ryan’s original belief in the folly of attachment.

To finish off, when a woman that Natalie fired commits suicide, Ryan lies that she gave no indication of any intent to do so and when he’s told to get back on the road and start firing people again he duly does so, having given his frequent flyer points to his sister and her new hubby who have invested all their money in real estate development scheme and can’t afford a honeymoon the poor dears. Meanwhile Natalie quits her job, returns to San Francisco. But…unlike the people she and Ryan fired there is no pain and with a glowing referral from Ryan she walks into another corporate job.

How this concatenation of self-seeking compliance, deception and moral abstention comes to be read as an ode to the virtues of human connectivity is a testament to the balm of Hollywood know-how. Nothing that the characters do add up but its done so slickly that we barely register it. That is the biggest problem with the film - it makes living a lie seem acceptable. Anyone who can recall the regeneration of Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982) can only regret that mainstream America has apparently lost the ability to pull itself out if its comfortable rut.  Little wonder that Nescafé employ Clooney. He could sell the Holocaust if he wanted and have us leaving the theatre with a warm fuzzy feeling.  I’d like to see Reitman try that.




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