George Clooney is the everyman for the 21st century. Who needs Tom Hanks’ cheery optimism when you can have Clooney’s well-mannered disconnection? His Ryan Bingham is a man of the times- a contractor hired by firms to fire their staff in the recession so they don’t have to. Bingham is at home in the sterility of air side America, packaging his existence into his suitcase, living almost the entire year on the road, and measuring everyone else by their ability to navigate speedily through his space. He meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) – his female analogue and every bit his equal, and they begin a sterile, disconnected relationship which suits their needs, and why not? America is thoroughly rationalised, and they count themselves as amongst the tools which keep it that way. They don’t compare feelings, rather travel discount cards, admiring one another through their mutual convenience to each other. Bingham fools himself even into believing he’s doing the people he’s firing a favour, by doubling as a ‘life coach’. Enter Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who derails his feelings and responsibilities-free life by convincing his boss Jason Bateman to pull him and his colleagues off the road, and start firing people by webcam. Before that can happen she must go out on the road with Bingham to try their firm’s new system out on-site, and no longer able to insulate herself from the pain she causes, Natalie is forced to change. She isn’t the only one…
‘Up In The Air’ is a comedy of manners which belts you when you least expect it – the humour is often gently amusing, but make no mistake director and co-writer Jason Reitman has something harsh to say about recession-hit America as it limps into the century’s second decade. Class act Clooney’s charisma would make this work even if the screenplay were a dud, but together they make it sparkle. Clooney’s aloof but amusing observations on his fellow travellers are contrasted with talking heads interviews of those he’s fired, and the cost of his personal success is constantly challenged. With Bingham at the same time the fulcrum between both a bittersweet rom com and an odd-couple film, Reitman runs the risk of trying to make the film do too much, but instead it catches fire. That you can be entertained with laugh-out-loud comedy one minute and ferocious social commentary the next is a testament to all concerned, and the performances are outstanding – Clooney’s well-matched by both Kendrick and Farmiga, and even Bateman reins himself in. Reitman never loses control of the contrasting issues, values and tensions between his three leads, and successfully uses Clooney as the prism through which we view 2010 America; it may be funny and pretty but it’s heartless, unfair and sterile too. He clearly hopes the chastened Bingham we see at the film’s close will one day be matched by his country.
‘Up in the Air’ is at it’s heart a dark tale of dreams lost and dreams discarded. It proves ‘Juno’ wasn’t a one-off, and that old school charm can still successfully underpin even the most biting morality plays. Studios take note.
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