In World War II the Allies used dummy tanks to confuse the enemy as to the placement and numbers of battalions. These dummy tanks were inflatable but looked, from a distance anyway, completely like the real things. Up in the Air reminds me of these dummy tanks – well made, authentic looking, but ultimately empty and hollow.
Jason Reitman’s third film returns him to the corporate world, and like Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air follows the story of a basically unlikeable guy – Ryan Bingham flies across the country laying people off. Bingham spends most of the year on the road, only staying in his spartan studio apartment 40some odd days, and he likes it that way. Bingham is a guy just this side of being a serial killer – a fastidious loner who sees other human beings as things that weigh him down. Of course by the end of the film he’s going to learn a bittersweet lesson about the value of having other people in your life – this much is obvious from the trailers. For a movie such as Up in the Air, just like for Ryan Bingham, the destination isn’t important, it’s all about the journey.
The journey is helped immensely by incredible casting. Bingham should be a basically hateful prick, but the smooth style of George Clooney takes the edge off of him. This is the kind of role that demands a movie star, not an actor (although Clooney is a fine, fine actor); Philip Seymour Hoffman as Bingham is creepy, while Clooney is romantically wounded. Yeah, he’s hopping across America destroying the lives of workers during one of the worst economies in this nation’s history, but he looks so good while doing it, and his voice is so kind. Actually, only Clooney could have played this character and made him likeable on any level – he’s a guy who loves the stale air aboard planes and relishes the generic environs of an airport. There’s something wrong with Ryan Bingham, but Clooney deftly misdirects you from the man’s smoldering emotional wreckage… well, at least until the end of the movie when he has to face that wreckage and change.
Interestingly, Bingham’s not a character. He’s sort of the embodiment of the movie, in fact – slick, enjoyable company, but without any center. We meet Bingham’s family late in the film and nothing there indicates where this guy comes from. His family isn’t crazy, isn’t oppressive, isn’t broken. We glimpse his high school life and it seems fairly happy and standard. So why does this guy live his life like a monk who worships airline miles (Bingham is chasing 10 million miles, hoping to be the 7th human being to ever accomplish that feat)? What makes him who he is? There’s just something missing inside him, a piece of his soul that isn’t there – at least until it’s dramatically convenient that it appear in him – and that same piece of soul is what’s missing from Up in the Air. Just as Bingham can impress people and talk a good game but never seems capable of making a connection with them on any real, human level, Up in the Air is engaging on the surface in a loosely funny way but lacks an actual heart. Every plot element that is supposed to be touching or emotionally transformative feels rote and by the numbers, and scenes occur in the third act that feel like they’re just from another movie altogether (Bingham returning home to his sister’s wedding is such a bad sequence that it should have been cut in the script stage). The character changes because he’s supposed to change, although Reitman hedges his bets in the end in a faux-indie, half-cynical way. For the first half, when you’re mostly hanging out with Bingham, the film cruises; to get into Gene Shalit territory, the real turbulence comes when Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner (working from Walter Kirn’s novel) try to get the story and the emotions flowing.
Reitman makes an interesting choice that didn’t work for me – he intersperses talking head interviews with people who have really been laid off throughout the film. The scenes play like the newly redundant are talking to Clooney’s termination specialist, but there’s something oddly exploitative about it all. Bingham’s job is just a metaphor for who he is -a disconnected guy whose career is disconnecting others – and while the movie acknowledges the suffering these people feel (in a very selfish, ‘look how upset this makes us, the people who are ruining your life’ kind of way), it never makes anything of it. These talking heads feel like Reitman buying gravitas and meaning; there’s a scene where Bingham’s boss, played by a wonderfully smarmy Jason Bateman, says that the shitty economy is their company’s moment to shine, and that line feels like it sums up the talking heads. The economy is terrible, and by weaving the reality of that into the movie, the film will feel weightier.
Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick play the women in Bingham’s life. Farmiga describes herself to Bingham as ‘You with a vagina,’ and she’s the perfect companion who begins to make Bingham see his own loneliness. Kendrick, meanwhile, is the young hotshot who is looking to overhaul the company, a firm that is called in to fire you and then supposedly helps you find a new job. Kendrick wants to take the termination specialists off the road and have them do their jobs via webcam; we’re supposed to think that Bingham’s a half decent guy because he thinks this is gauche (above and beyond the fact that he wants to keep traveling). Bateman makes Bingham take the young girl on the road with him to show her how lay offs are done, and wouldn’t you know they both change each other.
Farmiga is great – sexy and smart and loose. She holds her own with Clooney in the coolness arena, and she shines despite being saddled with a character predicated on an obvious reveal. Kendrick surprised me – she started off shaky, but it soon became obvious that was the point. She’s playing the character who feels like the Jason Reitman stand-in – she’s young and smart but without experience and filled with naive optimism. She’s the only character who changes, bouncing off of Bingham and discovering herself in the process. She’s a Fox Searchlight movie and Bingham is Sony Pictures Classics.
Kendrick’s getting some Oscar buzz from the role; I don’t see it, although it’s a very good, very funny, very personal performance. But the movie is sort of chock full of performances like that; Reitman has given a number of stellar actors small roles in which to shine. JK Simmons shows up in a scene as a guy who just got fired, as does Zach Galifianakis; Simmons is serious while Galifianakis is funny, and both are great. Danny McBride has a fairly straight role as Bingham’s sister’s groom-to-be, but he’s terrific. McBride injects his own humor and personality into the role without ever overwhelming it, and he lets Clooney be the really funny one in their scene together, the sign of a performer who understands what he’s doing.
There’s a lot to like in Up in the Air, and it’s a pleasant and enjoyable film. But there’s little to love, not much to chew on, and no depth to mine. It’s the epitome of the modern studio system faux-indie film – well made, cost a buck or two, has a friendly alternative music soundtrack, is smartly written but not challenging on any level. It’s popcorn entertainment for people who think they’re above popcorn entertainment; too smart to be a solidly mainstream film, too trite to be an art film. Up in the Air is perfectly, emptily middlebrow.
6.5 out of 10