They couldn’t have timed it better. As economic chaos encircles the globe, companies collapse and jobs are slashed, here is a bleak take on our turbulent times, a recession flick about a corporate downsizer. Anti-hero Ryan Bingham flies around the US, firing people whose bosses lack the guts to do it themselves. He does the dirty deed, spins the devastated ex-employee some motivational claptrap about new beginnings, goes back to his expensive hotel and runs up a lot of expenses before flying off to the next town and repeating. On days off he delivers gimmicky self-help seminars on the merits of living without ties.
Such a character would normally be repulsive – but he’s played by George Clooney. So, to recap: a handsome, charming commitment-phobe, who flies around earning big bucks. Must have been a big stretch for Clooney’s acting skills. Ryan is, if not happy as such (come on people, it’s Hollywood – nobody can be truly happy without lurve in their life), then at least fairly content with his itinerant existence. In between sacking legions of little people, he finds time for trysts with attractive fellow frequent flyer Alex (Vera Farmiga), whenever their flight paths cross. When they don’t, the pair exchange racy SMSs. Layover leg over and sex texting – who said romance was dead?
The rootlessness of modern life, the facelessness of the corporate world, the economic uncertainty – Up in the Air is a zeitgeist-channelling satire on our shallow and superficial age. But Ryan is doing well on it all, until the people in his life force him to question his travel-light lifestyle. There’s Alex, who’s threatening to become more than just an airport quickie. There’s young office hotshot Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who is championing internet-based firing (sensitive), thereby saving the company thousands in soulless, expensive hotel bills – and condemning Ryan to being stuck at home in his depressing Omaha bachelor pad. And there are Ryan’s hillbilly sisters, one of whose impending wedding to a lardy loser presents the economic hitman with a different idea of fulfilment.
Like Love Happens, which also centred on a detached motivational speaker becoming a new man, the message is a bit confused. Are we supposed to see Ryan as a cynic, making a living off spouting rubbish to delude the vulnerable? Or is he a representative of the old school, his face-to-face methods more humane than the high-tech dispatching of the future? Up in the Air is certainly a satire, but the film wears its morality lightly and doesn’t try to say anything too profound. Nobody is judged. It has some cheesy scenes, but romantic conventions (how many times have we seen a public speaker begin a planned speech, only to stop, to quizzical looks from the audience, tear up the notes and deliver something from the heart, damn it?) are also played with to wry effect. There are funny moments, and much wit.
The three stars seize their roles with gusto. While the focus is Ryan, the character of Alex is far deeper than supporting love interest, and Natalie is no mere sidekick. The trio’s interaction veers from comic to poignant, and this shading makes the film hard to categorize. Don’t expect this movie to alleviate your existential angst one bit.
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
On at: : Cinema City Cotroceni, Hollywood Multiplex, Movieplex Cinema, The Light