Up In The Air

Director: Jason Reitman
USA, 2009, 119mins, rated 15
Screening: The Phoenix, 6 February 2010

George Clooney portrays corporate America struggling to come to terms with the current recession and a new-found conscience in this flawed drama from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Not Smoking). Despite an engaging proposition and some strong central performances, the film-makers can't stave off some of the evil spectres of mainstream movie-making – sloppy writing and bad casting.

While it does pose some thought-provoking questions on the state of modern life, Up In The Air gradually descends into clich̩ and sentimentality with an inability to tie together these initially interesting ideas. It's worth seeing, but don't believe the hype Рthis is no modern day Frank Capra movie (despite Clooney's best efforts to emulate Cary Grant's everyman persona).

full review...

The problem with a film like Up In The Air is that it arrives with far too much excess baggage already attached. Even on its first winds of promotion there were unnecessary levels of hype regarding its Oscar-worthiness, its potential status as a 'great American movie', its socio-political timeliness and the masterful skills of its actors and director. With all this hoopla hung around its neck, a film better have the goods to back it up, but unfortunately, Up In The Air just doesn't deliver.

And yet it's not a bad movie as such – it’s actually got some pretty good things going for it. It starts off well, for instance. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a ‘career transition counselor’ – someone who's brought in to fire employees for companies who haven’t got the balls to do it themselves. In modern recession-era America, he’s a busy man, flying from city to city to pull the plug on the careers of countless hard-working Americans with a well-rehearsed stock of ‘we’re very sorry but…’ excuses.

And he loves it. The travel, the freedom, the streamlined efficiency of executive hierarchy and the slick, machine-like courteousness of a reward point meritocracy. Bingham’s absolutely in his element. His relationships follow the same pattern: quick, convenient, streamlined and detached. He picks up female versions of himself in hotel lounges, airport lounges, hire car queues... fleeting rendezvous that are as scheduled and functional as his travel arrangements.

It's a pretty good exposition, but sadly director Jason Reitman can’t just let all this unfold cinematically. Things gets rammed home with a pointless voice-over from Clooney and the clunky narrative device of Bingham’s conference work. Moonlighting on the side, Bingham gives 'motivational' speeches in hotel event rooms, suavely promoting messages of 'detachment equals success' to a handful of bewildered delegates. With such gems as "moving is living" and "we are sharks, not swans", he urges his attendees to rid themselves of their ties in order to live an unencumbered life. At this point the penny drops for even the most inattentive audience – Ryan Bingham's lost his way in life. To be fair, maybe these turgid devices aren't Reitman's fault, it's just as likely down to the studio, belittling us once again with their arrogant 'but do you think people will "get it"' approach.

The film's conflict comes in the shape of Anna Kendrick's Natalie Keener, a young corporate go-getter who is modernising the company Bingham works for with a new online system for sacking people. In an attempt to stall this progression that threatens his position, Bingham takes the young Keener out on the road (or rather, up in the air) to show her the realities of the work the company does. To further disrupt things, one of Bingham's sisters is getting married (setting up a confrontation with the family he's naturally become distant from) and he finds himself increasingly, and uncharacteristically, drawn to the new lady in his life, played by Vera Farmiga.

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney get down to business in Up In The Air

And as the cracks start to appear in Bingham's armour of detachment, so do they in the film's story. Little by little, what start out as interesting comments on the state of modern life soon get trampled by needless moralising on family, stability and happiness. For a film that wishes to show us that we've lost our way, it does a pretty solid job of emulating that – and not in any crafty Charlie Kaufman way. Overall, a lot of Up In The Air just didn’t gel. It wants to be timely and relevant, and yet it feels dated: Clooney’s old-school 50s charms and Bingham’s Willy Lomax-esque desperation; the melancholic, Depression-era vibe of the redundancy sequences; and the grand Kodachrome look of the aerial shots (that locate which US city Bingham’s flying into) which are reminiscent of those grandiose corporate films of the 1970s or, even, the Dallas titles sequence.

Ironically, Up In The Air's strongest feature is also its biggest flaw – George Clooney. Although I found this one of his most solid performances to date, sadly, for all his balancing of suaveness and frailty and his best Cary Grant-esque efforts, he's just totally miscast as Ryan Bingham. Too old, too charming and carrying way too much star quality, Clooney's not believable in this role at all. It's not specified, but you feel Bingham should be in his mid 30s, at a time of flux between 'young' and 'middle aged' man. But Clooney, well into his 40s (and then some) exudes so much maturity and confidence that it’s just too hard to believe he’s lived this selfish, unfettered life without ever having had his beliefs questioned.

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