Few stars – and you have to be a star more than an actor to pull this off – are better than George Clooney at playing redeemable rogues. Michael Clayton, Mr. Fox – these are guys who have what could be called the Clooney Conscience.
Ryan Bingham, the central figure of Up in the Air, is another high flyer who gets his wings clipped. A professional, corporate hatchet man, Bingham is hired by other companies to deliver the bad news to employees being “downsized.” As you might expect from someone in this line of work, he doesn’t put much value in human relationships. He’s in the air most days of the year, perfectly content to spend hours by himself in airport terminals, hotel bars and corporate lobbies. People, he says, aren’t social creatures but rather “sharks.”
His philosophy is challenged with the arrival of two women: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow business traveler who claims to swim as independently as Bingham; and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a new hire at Bingham’s firm whose idea of conducting layoffs video Web chats threatens to render Bingham’s “personal touch” irrelevant.
Up in the Air is a movie of nice moments, the kind you don’t normally see in a big-studio, star-anchored production. When the three main characters share a frank, time-killing discussion in a hotel lobby about life’s disappointments, there is an authenticity to the picture that almost feels subversive.
The movie is directed by Jason Reitman, whose defining talent as a feature filmmaker seems to be an ear for interesting material (Thank You For Smoking, Juno). As Bingham travels across the country and back again, Up in the Air is visually attuned to the banalities of America’s corporate and transportation hubs (tellingly, it’s set during the winter). Other than that, however, the film has no distinct cinematic style.
As for the timely theme, it clearly lends the picture a special resonance that can’t be denied. The firing montage that opens the picture – featuring real people reenacting their experiences – taps into palpable pain, confusion and rage. These people are hurting, even if they’re being “fired” by George Clooney in redeemable rogue mode.