Up in the Air (2009) dir. Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman
By Alan Bacchus
The sick feeling which is caused by this film starts early and continues to steadily towards the end. This sickness is caused by the general tone of self-conscious cinematic inoffensiveness and contrived cleverness masking as profound truth. Instead it all feels so very false. And so when Geoffrey Fletcher 'upset' Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar... oh what vindication.
The metaphors derived from the film’s esoteric details of airline culture, human resource business management, motivational speaking are all very clever and but so exacting with its connections to the lead character’s lonesome and detached life it's like watching a cribs note version of a great book. A film full of metaphors with no meat and potatoes to substantiate it.
You probably know the story by now, Ray Bingham (George Clooney) is a specialist hired by large corporations to fire people. His ability to walk around the difficult words and calm the ex-employees down before they even get a chance to be mad is aided by his sooth-saying charm and good looks. This job takes him on the road 270 days of the year, thus lives his life in hotel rooms, travelling in airports, cabs. Thus he has chosen to eschew the ‘settled’ life. At 'home' he rents a Spartan one bedroom condo in has no relationships, is disconnected with the family, including his soon-to-be married sister.
But when a sprite young college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick) brings an even more dispassionate approach to the process of firing people through internet-connected webcams, Ray finds his lifestyle threatened. To prove the long distance approach is no substitute for person to person interaction, Ray takes Natalie on the road to show her the ropes. Along the way both of them experience life-changing moments of enlightenment to their own personality deficiencies. Ray develops a relationship with a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga) which might just cause him to settle down and Natalie finds witnessing the despair on people’s faces after being fired too depressing to continue with her job.
I’m sure Reitman and his co-author Sheldon Turner did their homework to check that these types of companies actually exist, that in big corporations third party specialists are actually hired to fired people, but they set it all up with such smugness it feels like a complete fabrication. This starting point of contrived 'falseness' trickles down into every other corner of the film.
The base and polarized characterization of Natalie as the type-A university grad is a caricature with the grace of a sledge hammer. We’re told exactly what to think of her with nothing to discover. Reitman dresses her up in tight fitting masculine pantsuits, Why? Because she’s ‘tight ass’! Get it, she wears TIGHT clothes, and her character is TIGHT. So clever. Even her last name, ‘Keener’ is a metaphor as shallow as anything else in the film. Keener refers to an obnoxious go-getter if you didn’t know.
For all his charm, good looks, and affable self-deprecated humour George Clooney is sorely miscast. Reitman’s depiction of this industry of third party specialists hired to fire people is set up with such dispicableness there seems to be little value in the job other than. We know Ray is a depressed person, though his voiceover doesn’t say it, Reitman hammers us with every possible metaphor for loneliness and avoidance of emotional risk.
What could possibly have caused such a charming, good looking, intelligent, athletic, near perfect human being in every way shape or form to put himself in such a pathetic position in life? His job is characterized as the worst job on the face of the planet, so why does Ray do it? So he can collect frequent flyer mileage? Without context to his predicament, all we’re have is Clooney’s lovely face and charm to judge his character by. If he were say obese, had social disfunctions, or even a facial disfigurement of some sort I might begin to understand why Ray Bingham has does this to himself. But the charming George Clooney and the loser Ray Bingham don’t add up.
Distilling all the metaphors down to the essence of Ray’s predicament is that he’s never found love. During the film he does find love which opens himself up to being vulnerable emotionally. The film is saved from complete disaster with a neat and admittedly surprising narrative twist in the third act which sends Ray into even further despair. But if the shame of rejection were to happen to someone played by, say, Paul Giamatti, the gravitas of despair would hit us hard. But with someone as good-looking as Mr. Clooney… puh-leeeze! He generates no sympathy whatsoever.
Its all part of Reitman’s concerted effort to please us with attractive and charming people we can't relate to in dire and depressed lifestyles. Reitman barely pushes or challenges his characters resulting in a so a very safe, moderate and ultimately disappointing approach to this particularly relevant story of these economic times.
"Up in the Air" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment