Up In The Air

The presence of George Clooney tells you the key demographic of Up In The Air is female and veering towards middle aged, this being an actor who was twice voted as the “sexiest man alive” by People magazine.  From my perspective, I see a man who is better looking, richer, more talented and younger than me too!  By rights I should hate his guts, but the thing about Clooney is that he is so utterly charming that even straight men find it difficult not to like the hombre.

So it is with Jason Reitman‘s Up In The Air, the director having previously made the excellent Juno.  This is a movie made up of unpromising components, Clooney and the excellent Vera Farmiga notwithstanding, that manages to charm against the odds.  The story does not exactly suggest a picture to warm the cockles of the heart (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for the Career Transitions Corporation (CTC). He makes his living traveling to workplaces around the United States and informing workers of their dismissals in place of their employers, who fear doing it themselves. Part-time, Ryan also delivers motivational speeches, using the metaphor “What’s In Your Backpack?” to extol the virtues of a life free of burdens like relationships with people as well as things, arguing that the best way to live is to travel light, with little to hold one down.

Ryan relishes his perpetual travels, and his personal ambition is to earn ten million frequent flyer miles. While traveling, he meets another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga). They begin a casual relationship, meeting and sleeping together whenever they can arrange to cross paths.

Ryan is unexpectedly called back to CTC’s offices in Omaha, Nebraska. An ambitious, freshly graduated new hire, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), is promoting a plan to cut costs by conducting layoffs via videoconferencing. Ryan argues that Natalie knows nothing about the actual process, live or not, as she has never fired anyone and does not know how to handle upset people. He plays the role of a fired employee to show her inexperience. His boss (Jason Bateman) assigns him to take Natalie with him on his next round of terminations, much to his annoyance. Throughout the rounds, Natalie is visibly disturbed by firing people face to face.

As they travel together and become better acquainted, Natalie questions Ryan’s philosophy, but he is satisfied with his lifestyle. During the trip, Natalie is shattered when her boyfriend unceremoniously dumps her by text message. Ryan and Alex try to comfort her. Natalie later lectures Ryan about his refusal to consider a commitment to Alex in spite of their obvious compatibility, and becomes infuriated; she apologizes later, but soon afterwards they are ordered back to Omaha to begin implementing Natalie’s program. There are problems during a test run; one laid-off man breaks down in tears before the camera, and she is unable to comfort him.

Instead of returning immediately to Omaha, Ryan convinces Alex to accompany him to his younger sister Julie’s (Melanie Lynskey) wedding near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Julie had him (and others) take photos of a cutout picture of her and future husband Jim (Danny McBride) in various places because they cannot afford a honeymoon trip. When Jim gets cold feet, Ryan’s older sister talks Ryan into using his motivational skills to persuade Jim to go through with it. Although this runs counter to Ryan’s personal philosophy of non-commitment, he persuades Jim that “everyone needs a co-pilot” and the important moments in life are rarely unshared. The wedding takes place without further problems.

Ryan begins having second thoughts about his own life. As he starts to deliver his “What’s In Your Backpack?” speech at a convention in Las Vegas, he realizes he no longer believes it and walks off the stage. On an impulse, he flies to Alex’s home in Chicago, Illinois. When she opens the door, he is stunned to discover she is married with children; Ryan leaves without saying a word. She later tells him on the phone that her family is her real life and he is simply an escape. When she asks him what he wants out of their relationship, he is unable to answer. Happy with the arrangement ‘as is’, she tells him he can still call her if he wants to.

On his flight home, the crew announces that Ryan has just crossed the ten-million-mile mark. The airline’s chief pilot (Sam Elliott) comes out of the cockpit to meet Ryan and give him a special fulfillment card. He notes that Ryan is the youngest person to reach the milestone, only the seventh to do so (as the card is so numbered); Ryan, who had been preparing for that moment for a long time, shows little emotion. When the pilot asks him where he’s from, Ryan says, “Here.”

Back in his office, Ryan calls the airline to transfer five hundred thousand miles each to the newlyweds, enough for them to fly around the world for their honeymoon. His boss then tells Ryan that a woman he and Natalie fired has killed herself by jumping off a bridge, just as she warned them she would, and that when Natalie found out, she quit via text message. Ryan claims to have no memory of the employee making this threat. The company puts the remote-layoff program on hold because of government concerns, and Ryan is once again “back on the road”.

Natalie applies for a job in San Francisco, California. The interviewer is puzzled as to why she chose to work for CTC, given her sterling qualifications; she tells him she followed a boy. Based on a glowing recommendation from Ryan, he hires her. The film concludes with Ryan at the airport, standing in front of a vast destination board, looking up, and letting go of his luggage.

The factor counting in the movie’s favour is that it is a bittersweet tale of redemption for the cynical Bingham, leaving him to weigh up and re-evaluate the contents of his own backpack and to realise that there is more to life than being on the road, with his passing romance with Alex and his sister’s wedding as context against which to put things in perspective.

I’ve classed it as a comedy for these purposes (the quote blurb on the DVD cover announces this to be “a first class comedy,” courtesy of skymovies.com), but if so then the comedy comes with a darkish tinge.  Since the serious side to the movie is, in my humble opinion, more successful than the comedic aspects, maybe I should reclassify it as a drama?  At any rate, chances are that it will certainly give you opportunities to reassess your own existence and what your priorities are – hopefully with greater humanity than Bingham.

Casting heavyweight charmers like Clooney and Farmiga was always going to make an impact, but the casting is decidedly wayward.  Sorry, but Anna Kendrick as the shit-hot-but-born-yesterday rising star Natalie does not convince me in the slightest.  She contrives to sound shrill, awkward, gauche and not like anyone’s idea of a young hotshot.  While part of that persona may well have been deliberate, and a degree of naivety should be de rigueur, Natalie would need to be more streetwise and far less of a caricature to keep up with the likes of Clooney’s Bingham and gain the confidence of Jason Bateman‘s cool CEO Craig Gregory.

But perhaps the most effective part of the tale are the cameos played by the employees being fired by Bingham and the team from CTC.  Their reactions vary from tears to fury, but each and every one look and sound totally convincing.  These interviews alone, even without the narrative and cynicism, make the movie worth watching – and make you wonder how you would react in the same position.  Natalie is undone by one who drops heavy hints at her interview, but then commits suicide.

All told, there is a lot to enjoy here, and the ladies will not be disappointed by Clooney, and the story is undoubtedly worth telling.  In these austere times with company shutdowns and mass redundancies of loyal employees (Blackberry announced this week it is parting company with 40% of its global workforce, so the Binghams of this world will undoubtedly be working overtime), this film retains its relevance.  Another telling might easily be from the position of those being sacked.

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