George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Movie Review: Reitman’s “Up In the Air,” Loved by Critics, Delivers Limbo

As bank misadventures hold the unemployment rate at 10 percent and companies cut costs mercilessly to survive the shock waves, Jason Reitman serves up the flavor of the month, i.e., the collapsing economy and its human toll, in Up in the Air.

The comedy premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Up in the Air is now the flavor of the week among movie critics.

Michael Moore took the public on a first-person tour of victims of the unfolding crisis in Capitalism: A Love Story. Reitman, who skewered the rhetoric and practice of corporate cynicism grandly in Thank You for Smoking,  probes one aspect of financial gloom in a venerable but almost always poorly-replicated Hollywood formula, the romantic comedy.

Thank You for Smoking followed Christopher Buckleys wry novel about corporate tobacco stains on morality. Up in the Air starts with Walter Kirns novel of the same name from 2001 (pre 9/11), told in the voice of a corporate hit man who trims payrolls and accumulates airline miles. The broader crisis is mostly a context supplied by the audience that fills in the blanks.

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

The hero of this story, Ryan Bingham (played with detached aplomb by George Clooney), is a “career transition consultant,” a traveling specialist in corporate firings, who finds himself downsized, although not booted. His specialty firm decides to fire people over the internet to save on travel expenses, and puts the whole strategy in the hands of  fatuously confidant twenty-something Natalie (Anna Kendrick). There go the rewards benefits.

Youre supposed to despise Ryan, but his charm ensures that you cant. If you could, and he were less likeable, the film wouldnt make money.

At first, the worst part of the corporate termination engineers new status (“terminator couldnt get past legal,” the gung-ho new downsizer underling tells him) is curtailing his million-mile flying schedule, which had enabled Ryan to bask in hotels and airport lounges without much human attachment, and to focus on his other road game, motivational speaking: “I tell people how to avoid commitment.”

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

His new status also involves training the perky subaltern who is destined to replace him. Its a bit like digging your grave before they shoot you, although the grave is a bland grey corporate suite in one of the flyover cities.  It isnt taps that plays, but muzak.

Bear in mind that Up in the Air is a comedy, and Ryans love affair with another frequent-flyer traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), seems to unite two forty-ish soul-mates with Blackberries, laptops and access to the Preferred Customer line. “Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” says the woman with the male first name, a la Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. Farmiga has a delicate beauty, and she can handle some of the films zinger lines, although she is photographed to less-than-perfect effect here. Blame it on job stress and the pressurized cabin.

True to the romantic comedy genre, Ryan turns out to be the sensitive vulnerable man trapped in the isolated first class seat. He finds love and seeks more of it, as the camera darts back and forth between office dividers and through generic hotel interiors and aerial views of American cities from Omaha to Des Moines, seen from 35,000 feet.

But its just as easy to fail at love as it is to fail at the bottom line.  And the characters do just that. Once Natalie gets used to being on the road, shes dumped by the boyfriend whom she followed to Omaha when he got a job with Conagra, the ground beef behemoth. Clooney will also be challenged after he goes out on a limb and takes Alex to his sisters wedding in northern Wisconsin. I wont give away the crescendos to Reitmans moral tale, but the characters who take personal risks dont necessarily reap the profits.

Clooney is no Mel Gibson, thank God, but its troubling that he is leaning toward Mels hammy equanimity. (Were not talking about Gibson when Der Fuehrer, as hes called in Bruno, is serious. For that, take a look at  the South Park Gibson parody.) Clooneys problem, and the problem with the way that pain is depicted in Up in the Air, is that the director and the actors dont know enough about how to show it. Workers whove been fired are helpless, as is young Natalie, when her boyfriend fires her. Ryan and Alex revert to icy type when things go wrong. In the firings we see the fear of crisis, rather than the crisis itself.

Bear in mind that the economic crisis isnt substance here; its flavor and production design.

Up in the Air is not Tracy and Hepburn. If Clooney is walking in the steps of a classic actor, its Clark Gable.  Subtle and depth were not Gables strong suits.  Think of Jack Nicholson finding deep bleakness in About Schmidt. Would George Clooney venture into that territory? So far, weve only seen a bit of that, in Syriana – where he plays, of all things, a CIA agent whos been downsized.

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

George Clooney is also not Warren Beatty. If youre looking for another eras parallel To Up in the Air, try Shampoo, by Hal Ashby, in which Beatty plays a hairdresser, George Roundy, who, as the saying goes, “gets more pussy than Sinatra.” The background is the pre-AIDS era of total sexual freedom, set against a crisis, political rather than economic, of Richard Nixons election in 1968 as the bodies pile up in Vietnam. The overconfident bedhopper spreads himself widely, and at the end hes painfully alone. Its a performance that could teach Clooney of the perpetual grin a lot.

Dont feel sorry for Clooney. Women will fall in love with a male character who takes a risk, leads with his heart, and loses to try again as he walks away with that smirk. (This attitude, among other things, is what helps give Clooney lifetime screen tenure. Nobodys downsizing him yet.) As with Juno, a supreme marketing equation, Reitman may have done it again. A 10:30 am screening that I attended in Manhattan on a Sunday morning was almost full. Judging by the laughter, I would bet that at least half of them will see it again. And the character survives to face a new romantic crisis. Sequels, anyone?

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