Up in the Air goes down like a sedative. This is a movie that’s easy to like—and to dislike as well. Less adapted from than inspired by Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, Jason Reitman’s third feature is a glibly serious comedy about a professional terminator. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, corporate road warrior and hired gun, living out of a stowable wheeled suitcase and flying first-class city to city, or rather company to company, discharging redundant workers. It’s a job and the joke is, he loves it.
Of course, however cool, personable, and deft at running the airport-security gauntlet, Bingham is an antihero—even more successfully alienated than the tobacco lobbyist protagonist of Reitman’s debut, Thank You for Smoking, he moonlights, giving motivational lectures on avoiding commitment. Thus, in a conciliatory nod to the people, Up in the Air opens cannily with an orchestrated j’accuse. A rainbow montage of the newly laid off address their tormentor (and the audience) in tight close-up and tones ranging from pathetic (“This is what I get for 30 years at this company?”) to belligerent (“Who the fuck are you!?”).
Sound familiar? Up in the Air is the most topical Hollywood release of the season, a far more scarifying disaster film than 2012 or The Road. “This is our moment,” Bingham’s boss (an appropriately odious Jason Bateman) exults before dropping the bomb. His new protégée, Natalie Keener, a scarily confident 23-year-old efficiency expert (briskly played by professional go-getter Anna Kendrick), has developed a scheme in which firings will be handled in a central office by something like Skype. Now it’s Bingham’s job that’s in peril—or rather, his lifestyle.
Like Reitman’s Juno, Up in the Air has a boom-boom-bada-boom pace and an impersonal, emphatic style. Reitman’s screenplay, co-written with Sheldon Turner, is a veritable minibar of bite-size one-liners. The tone is sassy—as when Bingham picks up and beds his female equivalent (Vera Farmiga) after a prolonged flirtation conducted in the language of car rentals. The movie is like its protagonist, traveling light through a succession of sterile environments, just fast enough to short-circuit thought.
Bingham is the ultimate moving target. His cynicism is indistinguishable from his sincerity—especially once the plot turns. The key moment comes when Bingham intervenes in Natalie’s bungled firing of a plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth type (none other than Juno’s dad and Reitman axiom J.K. Simmons). Bingham expresses empathy. This proud connoisseur of food-court sushi is meant to have feelings! Clooney may be the ultimate smoothie, as charming as any actor since Cary Grant, but he’s unable to pivot, at least as his character is written. Similarly, Up in the Air is most tiresome when it decides to get “real,” shifting location to Bingham’s northern Wisconsin hometown. The fake folk rock used to score his kid sister’s wedding accentuates the movie’s essential disconnect.
Up in the Air means to be a critique of how we live now: Social networking is a substitute for intimacy that’s just as phony as Bingham’s doctrine of emotional self-sufficiency. Natalie’s cruel scheme for online firing suggests an updated gag from Chaplin’s Modern Times but it’s hardly outlandish. (I have a colleague who was fired on a conference call.) But like Juno, Up in the Air conjures a troubling reality and then wishes it away.
The filmmakers have peeked into the abyss and averted their eyes—ignoring the possibility that, to paraphrase Christopher Lasch’s Haven in a Heartless World, the precise socioeconomic forces that necessitated private life as refuge, had long ago invaded that sanctuary. To lose your job in America is to risk losing everything. As articulated by the movie’s several subplots and clinched with a concluding rainbow montage in which the unemployed extol the comfort of their loved ones, the cruelties of the free market can be ameliorated by a sentimental faith in Family Values. Up in the Air warns that you can’t go home again—and then, full of false cheer and false consciousness, pretends you can.
Religion may not be an option in Reitman’s world, but there’s an underlying supernaturalism to its premise. Clever little Juno was the Christmas cherub of 2007 and Bingham is a spiritual creature as well—a sad one, like the seraph in Wings of Desire who yearns to be human. Somewhere over Dubuque, 10 million air miles into his quest, he realizes that his is an existential fate—he is the capitalist system’s angel of death. And yet, a satire unsullied by anger, Up in the Air floats above the pain.