Film

Up in the Air: Airports, Overlords, and George Clooney at His Best

Up in the Air: Airports, Overlords, and George Clooney at His Best

It’s a shame that Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air was released less than two months before September 11, 2001; it’s definitely one of the most readable literary novels of the last decade, but its reliance on air travel as a plot point inspired nothing but queasy feelings in a post-9/11 world. The book never received the praise it deserved and has largely gone forgotten. But America was a different place back then—for instance, everybody tossed around terms like “a post-9/11 world.” Now we have a shiny new film adaptation of the book starring George Clooney (and not just any iteration of George Clooney; this is Clooney at perhaps his most charming), and hopefully the kiss of celebrity will give Kirn’s book another chance at literary fame.

Jason Reitman seems to have completely abandoned the stylistic choices of Juno—no quaint soundtrack or cutesy visual tricks here—and instead returned to the less flashy, more adult filmmaking palette and tenor of Thank You for Smoking. In fact, Clooney’s Ryan Bingham could be a spiritual cousin of Aaron Eckhart’s Nick Naylor—while Naylor advocated for the tobacco industry, Bingham is subcontracted to fly into dying businesses, look people in the eye, and lay them off from their jobs.

Up in the Air is at its most moving when it sticks to that corporate environment. Bingham cares for each person he’s laying off, in the same weird way that door-to-door Bible salesmen care about the widows they’re fleecing. It’s a tricky balance to make a comedy about layoffs, but Reitman succeeds at putting a human face on both sides of the equation—Bingham, at the whims of unseen corporate overlords, seems just as adrift as everyone he fires.

The supporting cast does fine work. Anna Kendrick quietly seethes beneath her professional veneer as a young up-and-comer who’s done what she’s been told her whole life; Vera Farmiga is sexy and warm as Bingham’s female counterpart, a corporate perk-chaser who mistakes status for happiness; and Jason Bateman is, as always, understated and clever as Bingham’s boss. The film floats along, through airports and hotels, chronicling the lives of its hapless, funny, attractive characters. You never want it to end.

Unfortunately, it does. Up in the Air gets grounded in a weird, unsatisfying way as Bingham is sucked into family drama at a wedding. It veers wildly from Kirn’s far superior climax, adopting an ending that is surprisingly less human (and humane) than that of the book. While many of the divergences Reitman makes from the text are clever and warranted (an adaptation should almost never hew religiously to its source), he seems to miss the point of the novel entirely. You can’t pin any of the blame here on Clooney—he turns in a masterfully subtle performance—but the narrative splutters into a succession of false endings before puttering out, leaving the audience, well, up in the air. recommended

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Comments (14) RSS

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1
I disagree about the ending. I didn't feel 'up in the air' at the end. Sure, I had to think about the ending and what it meant for the characters, but that comes along with good movies.
Posted by Stacie917 on December 5, 2009 at 10:31 AM · Report this
biju 2
Is the storyline as predictive as it sounds? His job is laying off people and....

I'm PSYCHED to see Red Cliff!
Posted by biju on December 5, 2009 at 9:34 PM · Report this
biju 3
err I meant predictable. Sorry
Posted by biju on December 5, 2009 at 9:34 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 4
If you press Up Up Up Up Down Up Left Up Right Up you get a shiny metallic balloon added.

It's one of those easter eggs in the game for Up.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on December 7, 2009 at 11:55 AM · Report this
John Scott Tynes 5
No, the movie is not about him getting laid off.
Posted by John Scott Tynes http://www.johntynes.com/ on December 7, 2009 at 12:19 PM · Report this
6
The ending was contrived and forced. Anna Kendrick's acting was melodramatic and made me want to punch her in the face. Rather than an up-and-coming go getter she came off as a spoiled brat whose parents got her all her opportunities. And don't get me started about splicing in the verite scenes of actual people getting laid off from their jobs. That was just ridiculously off topic and screamed "HEY WE NEED A WAY TO MAKE THIS MORE HUMAN AND CONNECT WITH PEOPLE DURING THE RECESSION".

After the teaser was released for this I was hoping for this to be my favorite film of the year. It wasn't. However, Clooney's performance made this film interesting.

Oscar bait.
Posted by Tom Ford on December 7, 2009 at 12:57 PM · Report this
7
Good review, but JEEZ, that Juno hatred is far reaching! Juno is a lot of things, but it does not use "cutesy visual tricks," any more than Thank You For Smoking, in which the visual jokes were just as distracting.

Anyway. This is a totally pointless comment, but the reflexive Juno-bashing is old and dull dull dull, and took me out of an otherwise good review.
Posted by BeccaCeeCee on December 7, 2009 at 1:28 PM · Report this
8
Good review, but JEEZ, that Juno hatred is far reaching! Juno is a lot of things, but it does not use "cutesy visual tricks," any more than Thank You For Smoking, in which the visual jokes were just as distracting.

Anyway. This is a totally pointless comment, but the reflexive Juno-bashing is old and dull dull dull, and took me out of an otherwise good review.
Posted by BeccaCeeCee on December 7, 2009 at 1:39 PM · Report this
9
just saw this last week. i have to say that it was an enjoyable movie, but left me (as an unmarried woman who doesn't want children) feeling rather empty and condescended to. in all honesty i'm sure people who are happily married with their kids will love the film and its "moral", but it felt like a back-handed compliment to the rest of us.
Posted by alisform on December 8, 2009 at 8:19 AM · Report this
10
Uh, what's wrong with quaint soundtracks and cutesy visual tricks? They were part of the whole charm of the movie - doesn't sound like bashing to me.
Posted by ic on December 10, 2009 at 1:47 AM · Report this
11
Having never read the original novel, I loved the film. I also spend a fair amount of time "up in the air", due to my much-more-pleasant job, but the endless sameness of airports, hotels, etc. does seem dehumanizing. I looked at the first part of the film (which bears a great resemblance to "Thank You for Smoking") as one man's humorous and successful adaptation to that artificial environment.

The several supporting actresses were wonderful in their downbeat roles: the snotty college kid who gets several painful introductions to the real world; the weary fellow traveler with her own method of adapting; and the sister, who first sneers at our hero's chosen lifestyle, but has no great success in her own private life, and must call upon him to serve their family.

The quick scenes of people who had lost their jobs were not actors; those were real persons, recently jobless, who the director invited to express their actual feelings to his camera. I thought those moments, painful though they were, actually "grounded" this movie really well.
Posted by tensor on December 11, 2009 at 7:52 PM · Report this
12
i'm not sure what the movie's moral is, alisform, or if there even is one. it gives good lip service to the value of relationships, but all the ones it portrays are pretty miserable.
Posted by splinter on December 12, 2009 at 10:54 AM · Report this
13
The documentary-style testimonials were a gimmick and stuck out like a sore thumb. And while Clooney was enjoyable, the "transformation" of his character is not at all credible. This guy whose only extra-laboral activity is giving nihilistic speeches about how relationships are pointless burdens, and whose life's thesis is the pursuit of peerage in the American Airlines frequent fliers club, suddenly feels obligated to help his family? What provoked this response? Not to mention the repetitive product placement of American Airlines and other brands that was so shameless I almost thought it was meant as a joke, but if it was, it was too subtle for me.

The dialog was at times entertaining, but at best worth a rental, and definitely not deserving all this talk about oscars. If you are seeking George Clooney as a loveable buffoon, Burn After Reading didn't treat its audiences with quite so much contempt.
Posted by Another Andrew on January 5, 2010 at 2:58 AM · Report this
Parsnip 14
I too felt condescended to. The movie gave us a character who was genuinely satisfied with his life outside the bounds of the three big M's (marriage, mortgage, munchkins). Rietman has shown a clear understanding in interviews how much MMM people are threatened by people living outside their lifestyle choice, but instead of provoking their irrational hostility, he placates it by making sure Clooney's character is punished and shown the error of his ways and implies that the only two options in life are total isolation or typical married domesticity. What a bunch of bullshit.
Posted by Parsnip http://www.funnyanimalbooks.com on January 5, 2010 at 1:58 PM · Report this

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