‘Up in the Air’ sounded like the ideal project for director Jason Reitman. The main character of his first film, ‘Thank You for Smoking’, was a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. The film didn’t mean much at the end of the day, but it was a tight and very funny Libertarian showpiece, centered on a magnificent lead performance by Aaron Eckhart. In the current film, the main character has another immoral and indefensible job- he fires people for a living. He’s played by an actor who is best at playing charming ruffians- George Clooney.
So here we have a talented director with two terrific films (he made ‘Juno’ in between), coming back to his comfort zone with a higher wattage star, more money, more control, and more experience than before. And what he’s done with all that is to make a messy, annoying film that isn’t half as effective as his first two. After the intelligence that permeated ‘Smoking’ and ‘Juno’, I was shocked at how sloppy, sappy and unsurprising this film was.
On a micro level, it generally works well enough. On a scene by scene basis, it is funny, interesting and reasonably entertaining. But on a macro level, it completely falls apart. It has no overriding plot, but three sub-plots, the connective tissue of which is flimsy at best. One involved Ryan Bingham’s (Clooney) job- flying around the country firing people, while showing the ropes to a young upstart (played by Anna Kendrick) who wants to fire people over iChat. You’d think that a filmmaker would feel the need to have a particularly good reason to have a main character who fires people, particularly a filmmaker who managed to make a good film about a tobacco lobbyist.
This, however, is Reitman’s most egregious fumbling. Bingham’s job has practically no impact on him. We hear him talk about it, but at the end of the film, we have no idea how he actually feels about what he does. He thinks that firing people over iChat is wrong, but is it because he feels they deserve better, or because he loves to fly and collect miles? It is never clear. In one scene, he seems to comfort someone he’s just fired (a distracting cameo by JK Simmons). But is he being sincere or just trying to pacify the guy? We don’t know.
For an occupation this sensitive to be central in the film without adequate context is bad enough, but Reitman compounds the problem by real people who were actually fired appear, either performing being fired or talking to the camera about their situation. Not only is it a piece of fiction that doesn’t fly (knowing that this person we see getting fired was actually fired is dispiriting in the wrong way- the film as a fiction is far too light to bear the weight of real people’s pain), but it also feels like the film is making special mention of a cause célèbre- one that it doesn’t know what to do with. That turns bad writing into something positively risible. And that isn’t the end of the offense. Reitman throws in a couple of actors in the mix (Simmons and Zach Galifianakis) that confuse the already unfortunate construction.
The only connection between these fired people and the theme of the film is the title ‘Up in the Air’. ‘Up in the Air’ is where Clooney literally likes being most, flying all the time. It is where he finds himself emotionally in the film, and it is where these people who were fired find themselves, looking for their place. A neat conceptual connection is not nearly enough to justify the presence of people losing their hopes and their livelihoods, especially with a main character that doesn’t seem to care one way or another.
Not much time need be devoted to the second sub-plot, of Ryan’s sister’s marriage. The scenes are nice in showing Ryan’s desire to be a part of this family he has practically nothing to do with. They are predictable, culminating in a terribly corny montage set to bad indy-rock. What do we learn from these scenes? No Man is an Island. No s***, Sherlock.
But we can leave the offensive, ineffective and facile behind…as we get to Vera Farmiga’s Alex. Ryan meets Alex on one of his constant commutes, and finds someone who seems to be a kindred spirit. Alex also flies a lot, stays in a lot of hotels, and is not looking for a deep relationship. And she is the one character in the film we get a handle on that is not predictable or forgettable. Hardly a paragon of virtue, Alex is always utterly true to herself. She sets up who she is and what she’s about in the first scene, and stays that until the end. Farmiga is one of the most interesting actresses around- there’s something off-kilter and unpredictable about her, and she always has a rock-solid backbone. She breathed new life into ‘the love interest’ in ‘The Departed’, and is compelling even in deeply problematic films like ‘Running Scared’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’.
In this role, she presents Alex as a woman totally comfortable in her own skin. She’s funny, sexy, and every bit as witty as Clooney’s Ryan. Their first scene is a marvelous back and forth about the advantages and perks of various airline and hotel chains, a cross between the business card one-upmanship from ‘American Psycho’ and the dissection of minutia on display in the great MOD squad scene in ‘Thank you For smoking’ (MOD stands for Merchants Of Death). Farmiga brings out the best in Clooney, too, as the first worthy love interesting/sparring partner since Jennifer Lopez in ‘Out of Sight’ (not counting Brad Pitt in the ‘Ocean’ movies, of course).
Clooney is good on a scene-by-scene basis, but his character’s unconvincing arc severely cramps his style. His best moment is a brief instance, where he is about to see Alex. We see him prepare for a few moments, and we see him work at turning on the familiar Clooney charm. That one moment is probably the most revelatory piece of acting he’s ever done on screen. He does play well with Anna Kendrick, but her arc is a boring and predictable one (again, not helped by Ryan’s lack of compelling reason for doing what he does).
The character in ‘Thank you for Smoking’ was born to talk. Ryan Bingham was born to fly 10,000,000 miles and realize that that’s a stupid goal for life. Why did he have to fire people? And why is his realization so uncompelling? Maybe it’s some brilliant meta-statement on the part of the filmmakers that at the end I was lost and disappointed, just like Ryan Bingham. He, however, can only blame himself. I can blame the makers of this bland, predictable and ultimately shoddy piece of work.