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.