A film review by Craig J. Koban December 29, 2009

Rank:  #21


2009, R, 109 mins.


Ryan Bingham: George Clooney / Alex Goran:  Vera Farmiga / Natalie Keener: Anna Kendrick / Craig Gregory: Jason Bateman / Kara: Amy Morton

Directed by Jason Reitman / Written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner / Based on the novel by Walter Kirn

"The slower we move, the faster we die."

Ryan Bigham (George Clooney)


UP IN THE AIR provides a portal into one of 2009’s most fascinating and complex characters: For 322 days a year, Ryan Bingham travels on airplanes all over the country and works as a self-described Termination Facilitator, or rather a person that goes to companies that have executives that are too weaselly and meek minded to sack their own employees and does it for them.  Each day he walks into a different office somewhere in America – whether it is Detroit, St. Louis, Wichita, etc – and gets a list of employees that the company wants to axe in an effort to downsize during the harsh economic recession.  Most of these decent minded and hard working people are, of course, frustrated, terrified, and incredulous by the news of their termination, but Bingham – with a Vulcan-like emotional detachment and calm spoken resolve – reassures his victims that their firing is not an end, but a new beginning with ample opportunity 

It would be deceptively easy to find this man deplorable; what he does is maliciously cruel and mean-spirited, but UP IN THE AIR never reduces Bingham to a one-note caricature or an emotionless, unfeeling, and uncomplicated corporate villain.  The masterstroke of the film is that it allows viewers to understand and, in some circumstance, sympathize with this man.  

Bingham is a figure of puzzling contradictions: he’s devilishly good and confident at his “termination” job and has deep vented pride in his professionalism.  He professes to be liberating people from the doldrums of their jobs so that they can go on to achieve their dreams, even while he’s actually destroying them.  On the side, he also manages to give motivational self-help lectures about keeping your life pared down to what you can fit in one backpack…often to the people that have most likely been canned before.  Even though his job involves copious amounts of emotional baggage, he loves what he does.  He’s married to it 24/7.  He has no wife, no kids, and no long-term aspirations to have either.  He barely has a permanent residence and resides in a shoddy and sterile one-bedroom apartment that is essentially empty.  He has no personal connections with people other than the ones he fires.   He lives in a culturally hermetic cocoon that has segregated himself from anyone and everyone…and it has made him an empty and meaningless figure trapped in an increasingly isolated world.   The more he allows himself to be trapped within it, the more hallow he becomes, and the tougher it becomes for him to admit it. 

There is possibly no actor today that could have played Bingham other than George Clooney, whom has revealed time and time again why he is one of the most dependable leading men and actors of his generation.  What he does is not easy.  He’s one of those exceedingly rare performers that can nonchalantly morph movie star charm and charisma alongside delicate and nuanced emotional vulnerability and sincerity.   The man can play cocky and suave bravado in his sleep, to be sure, but what Clooney never gets much credit for is how secure and adept he is an dialing into the flawed, world weary souls  (like on display in SYRIANA and MICHAEL CLAYTON).  In UP IN THE AIR Clooney - much as he did in CLAYTON - musters up all of his slick, wise-cracking energy and easygoing magnetism to show a man that is a pillar of self-confidence that, in the end, grows to understand what a depersonalized and disconnected life he is leading.  The central tragedy of Bingham that Clooney seems to understand so resoundingly well through his performance is that he is a lonely, empty vessel of a man that may or may not be able to rescue himself. 

For Bingham, perhaps the only way to live his life is up in the air; at one point he matter-of-factly tells someone that "moving is living," and hid daily grind of airport security, rent-a-cars, and high-end posh hotels is like a drug to him.  The intriguing angle to the film is how he finds so much self-gratification with the simple swipe of a plastic card: he has at his disposal innumerable key cards and VIP passes for just about everything and relishes in his rigidly orderly world.  In many ways, Bingham is a cold and solute reflection into out modern technology and consumer psyche: our systemized world has many feeling it has connected us more, but at point of fact it has separated us more than ever. 

Since Bingham loves his freewheeling mile-high occupation, he feels attacked when his employer (played with a perfectly cold and underscored cynical edge by the great Jason Bateman) decides that, to cuts costs down during the recession,  he is flirting with doing away with having his employees travel the globe to fire people.  He introduces Bingham to a hotshot college grad named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, a far cry away from he work in the TWILIGHT series) that has big ideas to modernize how their company fires people.  Her plans are to set up elaborate Internet enabled webcams to fire people via live chat, which all but corrupts everything that Bingham is proud to stand for.  During his whole life he has perfected the art of the one-on-one, poker faced stand-off, not to mention that he has developed the skill set required to pass on the harshest of bad news on to people that don’t deserves it without making it personal.  Seeing this career minded, determined, but hopelessly naïve young girl undermine his career scorns him to no end.  Reluctantly, he is ordered to take her under his wings on his last travels in order to show her the ropes of how to let people go with, oddly enough, some humanity.   

Bingham’s life is thrown two more fateful curveballs: The first one comes with a chance encounter and later fling he has with another frequent flyer business woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga, an actress with sultry, vixen-like eyes and beauty that matches gels harmoniously with her razor sharp wit and comic timing) that she uproariously describes herself to Bingham as “you without the vagina.”  Their initial flirtation in a hotel bar then segues into a full-fledged fling while on travels (a hilarious moment ensues when, after sex, they both prop up their laptops to schedule their next quickie).  She’s the closest thing to a relationship he has, but they screenplay never panders to reducing their relationship to simplistic formula of a romcom.  Then there is a very interesting story detour involving Bingham coming to his semi-estranged sister’s wedding where he is coerced into helping the groom (Danny McBride) come to grips with his pre-wedding day cold feet.  In one of the film’s many transfixing moments, Bingham tries to sell the man on marriage while, deep down, reveling in his hatred of the institution.  The irony here is both funny and depressing. 

Yet, that’s what some of the best comedies are able to do: mix humor and pathos in equal dosages and let the laughs speak out to darker truths about the human condition.  UP IN THE AIR also does a thankless job of being a timely reflection on our current socio-economic times, which is more than exceeding the status quo for most screen comedies.  The film taps into many people’s worst nightmares: waking up, going to work, and being dealt with the crippling and immediate blow of unemployment after decades of loyal service.  What’s key here is that the film never expresses these moments for cheap comic effect (yes, many of the scenes are played for laughs) but the interviews that Bingham has with the folks he terminates still have a chilling veracity and heartfelt sincerity.  One scene in particular is a small scale masterpiece of economy and finely tuned acting, and it involves Clooney pulling out all the stops to spin-doctor his latest victim (the pitch perfect J.K. Simmons) into thinking that his job has all but held him back for years.  You want to both chuckle and tear up at the same time. 

The performances, again, are crucial here for the intended effect, and Clooney gives a performance that will garner him another Oscar nomination.  Anna Kendrick has also been garnering much Academy buzz with her portrayal of her monumentally wet-behind the-ears downsizer, and she is a pure delight and revelation as her fast-talking, outwardly assured, but inwardly vulnerable rookie.  Two other performances are maybe getting a little lost in the limelight of Clooney’s and Kendrick’s: the first would be Farmiga, an actress I have been championing in films ranging from THE DEPARTED to RUNNING SCARED and she's got that the type of smoldering and mercurial sexual intensity alongside having chemistry with her male lead, but she also hints at some lingering secrets beneath her assertive façade.   This is breakthrough work for her.  The other is a quietly tender performance by Melanie Lynskey playing Bingham's stressed out sister-to-be-wed; she was so quietly funny in THE INFORMANT!  and here she has a few brief, but moving scenes where she reveals years of pent up resentment for her older brother with the most modest of non-verbal signals. 

UP IN THE AIR was adapted from a 2001 Walt Kirn novel of the same name by Jason Reitman, who despite being barely in his thirties has amassed a recent directorial resume that highlights him as one of the most intelligent, edgy, and ferociously talented young filmmakers of the last decade.  He made the nail-biting social satire THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING and the single best film of 2007 in JUNO and once again with UP IN THE AIR he displays how masterful he is at making mainstream, populist efforts with the flavoring and edge of an indie darling.  UP IN THE AIR is not as faultless as his two predecessors (the central relationship between Bingham and Keener follows a fairly preordained path, not to mention that some plot secrets are telegraphed a bit too easily), but the film still remains a caustic, frequently humorous, and brutally honest portrait of one man’s increasing degeneration into loneliness and isolation.  

At one late point in the film (while in flight) another character asks Bingham where he’s from, to which he melancholically responds, “Here.”  The film’s comedy is here in abundance, but at its core resides an uncompromising pessimism. 

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