Movie Review: ‘Up in the Air’ soars

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga star in a flick that makes insight, comedy and poignancy look easy.

February 5, 2010 17:11
3 minute read.
George Clooney and fellow frequest flyer Vera Farm

up in the air 311. (photo credit: MCT)


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Drama (109 min.) Rated R for language and some sexual content
Directed by Jason Reitman

Up in the Air makes it look easy. Not just in its casual and apparently effortless excellence, but in its ability to blend entertainment and insight, comedy and poignancy, even drama and reality, things that are difficult by themselves but a whole lot harder in combination. This film does all that and never seems to break a sweat.

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Credit for this coup goes to writer-director Jason Reitman, who made Walter Kirn’s novel his own, using it as the jumping off point for a bittersweet look at the life and times of a happy road warrior, beautifully played by George Clooney, who willingly spends so much of his life on airplanes that he’s not exaggerating when he says “to know me you have to fly with me.”

Before we even meet our protagonist, Up in the Air makes a pair of inspired choices. It plays a hip-hop Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings version of Woody Guthrie's venerable ‘This Land Is Your Land’ over a variety of aerial shots of American landscapes, an offbeat and striking choice that says the things you are about to see are going to shake up your sense of the familiar. The opening also helps create the film’s wonderful air of inclusion, the feeling that we can all happily share in the experience that’s about to unfold.

Up in the Air’s protagonist Ryan Bingham is a corporate hit man who flies around the country firing people for companies who are too timid to do it themselves. If you were to tell this consummate business traveler that he was going to be in a story that did anything but extol his lifestyle he’d think you were hallucinating. For Bingham is a very happy camper, and convincingly so.

Not only does Bingham feel, with some evidence on his side, that he is a humane, compassionate executioner, he also loves the soothing predictability that goes with high-end business travel. At home in airports and on planes the way few people are at home anywhere, he’s made a science of security lines and moves cards through optical devices as if scanning was an Olympic sport.

Reitman has said he wrote Bingham with Clooney in mind, and it was a wise choice. It’s hard to think of an actor who’s better at projecting the professional smoothness that’s essential to make this character palatable, but Clooney turns out to be willing to take that persona further, to be both more real and more vulnerable than his charm-offensive characters are usually allowed to be.

Throwing Bingham off his confident stride is the almost simultaneous arrival of two women with different agendas in different aspects of his life who share the ability to compel him to take the risky path of human interaction.

First up is Alex, a female business traveler who shares Bingham's love for the simulated hospitality and hubristic perks of frequent flying, someone who is so his psychic twin that he finds himself synchronizing schedules with her so they can share steamy airport rendezvous.

Handling Alex as deftly as she handles all her roles is the chameleon-like Vera Farmiga, who goes one-on-one with Clooney with the same brio and confidence that she showed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed.

If Alex invades Bingham’s life in the personal sphere, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) does in the business arena.

A whip smart young numbers cruncher hired by Bingham’s boss (a fine Jason Bateman), Keener wants all future firings to be done via video conferencing, and Bingham has to take her on the road with him if he hopes to keep his job. Kendrick, memorable in Jeff Blitz’s Rocket Science, is the film’s secret weapon, and her tightly wound character is a comic triumph.

The questions Up in the Air gracefully pose while it is thoroughly entertaining us is whether Bingham's minimalism can survive unexpected contact with genuine emotion, and if so what will be the extent of the collateral damage? The answers turn out to be surprisingly complex, a further reason to celebrate a director who, both literally and metaphorically, has filmmaking in his bones.    

(LA Times/MCT)

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