George Clooney’s smile is pretty much the only thing a film needs to be an enjoyable experience. An entire trilogy of near-plotless heist movies were built entirely on the foundation of his cheeky grin. He occasionally hides his dimples away in more serious roles, usually resulting in an Oscar nomination. In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, Clooney is beaming. If you were handed the script to this film and offered the starring role, you would find it difficult to wipe the smile off of your face too.
Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a corporate gun-for-hire, employed by gutless white-collar bosses to fire their staff. America is in the midst of a devastating economic crisis and as Lt. Aldo Raine would say, Ryan’s business is “a-boomin’”. He travels from state-to-state, calmly setting upset employees adrift on their “new journey”. It’s not an envious job, and Bingham takes no pleasure in firing strangers. What he does love is the lifestyle that comes with it. The endless flights; the hotel rooms; the random encounters; the loyalty programs tied to nearly every travel purchase. Although his sisters (Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey) would say he is aimless, Ryan does have a goal: to reach 10 million frequent flyer miles. Of course, this is just the kind of goal someone sets in case anyone asks them if they have any goals.
His lifestyle is put in jeopardy when his boss (Jason Bateman) hires plucky upstart Natalie (Anna Kendrick); she’s a Cornell graduate with the nifty idea of firing people via the Internet. Ryan points out that she is taking away what little dignity is left from a fairly undignified job. He is instructed to show her the ropes; to take her on his final travels before the new system is set in place. Ryan’s farewell tour will include his sister’s wedding and a couple of rendezvous’ with his travelling soul mate Alex (Vera Farmiga).
We should despise Ryan Bingham. He seems to derive pleasure from taking people’s livelihood away. However, as the film progresses, we see that the joy actually comes from Bingham’s short, but undeniably intimate relationship with each of these people. Not unlike the portion-controlled foods and toiletries he enjoys receiving every time he boards a plane or checks into a hotel, he enjoys these portion-controlled relationships. He constantly raves about the joy of solitude and how moving alone is the only way to live. When he loses those nearly intangible connections, he truly is lost. This is about as devastating as commentaries on human relationships get.
Up in the Air is the third film of Reitman’s career. The young director set the bar ridiculously high with his first two films, Thank You For Smoking and Juno. As if there were any possible room for improvement, his latest film surpasses his past achievements (yes, even the feat of making Diablo Cody’s hyper-dialogue sound normal seems unimpressive by comparison). Reitman teamed up with Sheldon Turner to adapt Walter Kirn’s wry and detached novel of the same name for the big screen (somewhat loosely I might add). While Kirn was never an exotic dancer like Diablo (at least that we know of), he proves to be a perfect fit for Reitman’s style. Much like the book, Reitman’s film is funny and sardonic; however, there is a warmth and heart to the movie that is missing in Kirn’s novel. Perhaps that can be attributed to the ladies of the film (played spectacularly by Farmiga and Kendrick). While Ryan Bingham is a fascinating literary character, he is never really challenged in the novel. Neither Alex nor Natalie exist in Kirn’s Up in the Air, but here they act as perfect foils to Bingham’s way of life; they force him to move forward, adapt, improvise and even grow. Reitman has a real knack for providing new and interesting female characters, and proves here that we do not need to rely on tired archetypes. Attention all future casting directors: Kendrick and Farmiga prove they have the chops to play them.
Clooney truly gives one of his greatest performances in Up in the Air. It’s undeniable he has become one of the most iconic actors of his generation; seeing any of his characters on the screen is to see “George Clooney”. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between Clooney and Bingham; the latter being a snake-oil salesman and the former being a movie star (debate the differences in your own time). As I mentioned earlier, Ryan Bingham is a fascinating literary character, and any actor would be lucky to play him. Clooney does the impossible, and gives Bingham a soul; a wounded one at that, just visible behind that effortless smile. Up in the Air is so funny, so consistently surprising and so emotionally in-touch that it could have only been crafted by one of the most soulful directors working today.
*Up in the Air arrives in Australian cinemas January 14th.
Check out my other reviews here.