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Up in the Air

A movie about corporate heartlessness lacks gravity.

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Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) checks for meaningful flights.
  • Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) checks for meaningful flights.

It's incredibly rare, in these profit-conscious times, to find a Hollywood movie that's so very trenchant and wise about both our external lives (the things we say and do) and our internal lives (the things we think and feel).

Unfortunately, Up in the Air isn't such a film. It's as thin as the atmosphere where its protagonist, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), spends so much of his time, and I can only attribute its good notices to the sort of euphoria that comes with oxygen deprivation. Twenty minutes in, irritated and already bored, I predicted three things about the ending, two of which came true. And no, I'm not that smart: Up in the Air is that transparent. 

Director Jason Reitman, who co-wrote the screenplay (based on a novel), has made one good movie (Thank You for Smoking) and one very good one (Juno). It was bound to happen that he'd make a bad one that everyone thinks is good. The best I can say about Up in the Air is that it doesn't go totally soft in the end by compromising the essence of Bingham: He's still pretty much the guy we're programmed to guess he is at the beginning, only now he realizes it, too. 

Bingham works for a company that other companies hire when they're too pussy to fire people. This means he flies around the country for his working life -- which is to say, his life -- living out of a well-packed suitcase-on-wheels, and chalking up American Airlines frequent-flier miles on his way to the virtually unattainable 10 million. He's so content to be unattached that he's made a lifestyle of it, and he gives seminars on how you, too, can fit your entire life in a backpack and have no emotional baggage or responsibility.

Bingham's life becomes complicated when his boss (Jason Bateman) takes the advice of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She's a young comer who, following the lead of Coke and IBM -- if this is true, there goes the movie's premise -- wants Bingham and his fellow firers to do the deed by video teleconference. Bingham objects, and not just because he has no life apart from his life on the road: He believes there's an art to firing people that he can only practice live on stage, rather than on screen.

So Bingham and Natalie take to the air, he to teach her the art, and she to help him make the transition to the 21st century. Meanwhile, Bingham carries on a city-to-city affair with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a traveling businesswoman who shares his aloof sojourner values, telling him, "Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina."

That line (that word) is supposed to get a laugh, but someone needs to tell Reitman that the punchline nowadays is "va-jay-jay." The dialogue in Up in the Air is quick and crisp, although the characters don't say very much: They're too glib to be engaging or insightful, and of course, things go soft and treacly toward the end. Reitman films the early scenes of his movie in ugly blue-green hues that look like your TV when you can't get the color right. As we cozy up to Bingham, the scheme get warmer and brownish-red. 

I like it when movies name names rather than making up corporations-à-clef, and Up in the Air doesn't: Never once do we learn what these executive types do or where they work when Bingham fires them. Maybe Reitman wanted every man and woman who gets fired to be an Everyman (and Woman). But this story takes place in "the present," and that kind of vagueness only prevents us from knowing whether they deserved to be fired (say, if they worked for a crumbling investment bank, or a dying automaker, or if they're lousy at their jobs).

Most of Up in the Air is a good safe vague liberal tract on the sang froid of corporate mentality. Don't get me wrong: I've voted for only one Republican in my life. (Sorry, Cyril, couldn't bring myself to do it.) But believing that rich people should pay more in taxes and not get deductions for golf trips is no excuse for making a dull movie. 

Up in the Air ends with a quick series of monologues from some of the fired people who have, as Bingham told them they would, found new purpose in their lives thanks to their unemployment. It's possible Reitman means this to be his last big joke, but that's not how it comes off. So let's give a round of applause to the bootstraps of American resilience that all those conservatives cooed about when they voted against the stimulus package and extending unemployment benefits.

Clooney, Bateman and Farmiga do their best to make it seem real; Kendrick, badly cast and badly directed, talks like a computer. I enjoyed watching the mature actors, although Clooney's vulnerability has begun to feel like a put-on, a consequence perhaps of too much time in the Ocean. I might have enjoyed the actors and their movie more in the hands of the Coen brothers, who would have taught these characters a real lesson about taking themselves so seriously.

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