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FILMS: Up in the Air

Rachel Winterbottom is impressed by George Clooney's timely portrayal of a corporate downsizer

Written by . Published on January 27th 2010.

FILMS: Up in the Air

ABOVE the clouds is a man without baggage. He is more loyal to his service providers than his family and his shell of an apartment lies empty for the best part of the year. After all this time in the air, is he finally ready to make a connection? Not if he can help it.

Bingham lives in a systemised world of motivational speeches and automated greetings where even one night stands are scheduled in. It’s an existence that doesn’t allow for change unless it’s made an appointment first.

Driven only by a need to clock up his air miles, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a corporate downsizer for bosses who are too pussy to fire their own staff members. Bingham lives in a systemised world of motivational speeches and automated greetings where even one night stands are scheduled in. It’s an existence that doesn’t allow for change unless it’s made an appointment first. Enter new recruit Natalie Keener, aka the change.

On the surface, this film’s plot is about a man whose only goal in life is to be the seventh person ever to reach the one million air miles mark. That’s all just cloud cover though, and beneath that is a world where every line is weighted with meaning, and where the words ‘We value your loyalty,’ come to represent the whole of Bingham’s empty existence.

Adapted from Walter Kirn’s book of the same name by Juno’s Jason Reitman, the director, producer and co-writer’s original version of Up in the Air was apparently supposed to be a satirical comedy. This is a film about people losing their livelihood, their homes and careers they’ve dedicated the majority of their working lives to. Thankfully, king of the quirk Reitman has taken the right approach with this timely gem and instead of being satirical, it’s just true.

Other than customer service providers, Bingham’s only real human contact are the people he’s firing and he takes pleasure in these interactions. In reality, he’s the harbinger of bad news in these brief exchanges, the face of failure, and even his most poetic advice has as much emotion behind it as the automated train announcements expressing profound regret for delays to your journey. Despite this he’s a very likeable character – Clooney is now so charming he humanises the despicable. Next up, a biopic of Hitler, prepare to be swayed?

Anna Kendrick (you know, Bella’s ingratiating mate from Twilight) plays Natalie Keener, the crisp-suited, clinical little upstart who stands as the pre-pubescent threat to Bingham’s air miles. Where Bingham sees poetry in speaking face-to-face with ex-employees, Keener sees excess expenditure.

Their boss, a generic, bearded Jason Bateman (as seen with less facial hair in Juno and Arrested Development), decides that Keener’s idea of firing via webcams is the way forward and grounds all employees. Much to Bingham’s dismay, he also makes the pair team up so he can show Keener the ropes before technology takes over. In the face of all that human suffering, Keener’s grown-up veneer slowly starts to crack as she realises there’s no flowchart for delivering life-shattering news.

The majority of the ex-employee ‘actors’ are actually played by people who really have just lost their jobs and their naturalistic responses pays dividends. Underneath the brutal onslaught of all those very human reactions, Keener’s vulnerability is exposed and her innocence eaten away. By the end you’ll no longer think of Kendrick as Bella’s mate from Twilight. She’s above it.

The other woman to threaten Bingham’s travel-sized existence is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, Orphan), the female version of himself. They meet in a hotel bar and seduce each other with executive privileges and loyalty card foreplay. Maybe it’s witnessing how his profession is affecting his young protégé that causes a disturbance in the organised compartments of his heart, but as Bingham slowly opens up to Alex, both Clooney and Farmiga’s excellent performances leave you guessing about who is the more vulnerable of the two.

It’s embarrassing seeing people at their most vulnerable, and Reitman doesn’t shy away from this. Grown men break down and cry, women speak calmly of suicide, shaking fingers reach for wallets to plea for pity with photos of the family they’ll be letting down. It’s as awkward as it is heartbreaking but there is also a dignity to these ex-employees that Reitman has captured perfectly.

In Reitman’s film, nothing is stable, not even marriage. The message is capricious – love is stability, but it can also be fleeting or shallow. The film’s one clear message is that hope gets you through the worst times (although being in a loving relationship can help). Witty, poignant and with an ending that manages to be buoyant without being contrived, Up in the Air is a successful homage to things more tangible in life than a nine-to-five job.


Up in the Air (15) is on general release now.

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Baggage handlerJanuary 27th 2010.

I agree, surprisingly good film. But not about the potency of capitalist ethics. More about the triumph of the human spirit, surely?

AviatorJanuary 27th 2010.

But underneath, the film cannot hide its belief that being fired is good for you. Too much in thrall to capitalist ethics for me I'm afraid.

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