Up in the Air


Movie review by Greg Carlson

If Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” is one of the year’s most Bressonian films, then Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is certainly its antithesis.  Manipulative, smug, and supremely confident of its own worth, “Up in the Air” is a movie of and for its time, a skittering commentary on economic despair coupled with a conventional “to thine own self be true” mantra.  George Clooney’s tremendously appealing performance saves the film from total disaster, but the movie is ultimately too dependent on self-actualizing epiphany – in other words, it has more than one big moment in which a character realizes that a major mistake has been made, and then sprints off in the opposite direction to try and fix it.

Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a seasoned terminator who fires people for a living, a veteran air traveler more comfortable on a hotel room mattress than in his own seldom used bed in a drab apartment in Omaha.  He crosses the country in pursuit of 10 million frequent flyer miles (a substantial upgrade from the novel’s 1 million), distancing himself from the anguish he leaves in his wake.  As Bingham shuttles from city to city, he divides his time between seducing fellow road warriors like Alex (Vera Farmiga) and condescendingly putting up with his earthbound sisters.

Reitman, with co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner, overhauls and transforms Walter Kirn’s grim, sooty novel so radically that only a smattering of themes, ideas, and lines make it from the page to the screen.  Kirn’s Bingham, a discombobulated, paranoid, pill-gobbling conspiracy theorist, is edgier and less likable than Clooney’s calm opportunist, and the book is more interesting for it.  Additionally, the filmmakers concoct the entire subplot of Bingham’s indoctrination of Anna Kendrick’s ambitious efficiency expert/career transition counselor.

Reitman sounds the movie’s sourest note during a grounded wedding interlude in “authentic” Wisconsin.  The director dredges up several old chestnuts, from a groom with cold feet to the encouraging pep talk that validates the protagonist’s persuasive rhetorical gifts.  The sequence, which includes a queasy visit to Bingham’s old high school with his new squeeze, is scored with fragile, melancholy acoustic tunes like Elliott Smith’s “Angel in the Snow,” a device that has felt stale and imitative ever since “Miss Misery” earned an Oscar nomination for “Good Will Hunting” in the original song category.

“Up in the Air” probably wouldn’t have received as much love and praise had Reitman skipped the equivocation and moralizing, but that combination is one of the filmmaker’s hallmarks.  Studio publicity has milked the anecdote that the people who appear in the “getting canned” montages are not actors but regular folks who have lost their own jobs.  Somehow, though, Reitman’s casting gesture seems less than magnanimous and more than a bit exploitative.  “Up in the Air,” like Reitman’s other features, vigorously mixes the solemnity with heaping helpings of comedy.  My favorite moment was Sam Elliott’s cameo resurrecting the Stranger.  He does not happen to mention that Bingham is the man for his time and place, but seeing him did remind me to watch “The Big Lebowski.”  Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/28/09.

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