Film Review: Up in the Air

Funny and poignant tale similar to director Jason Reitman’s two earlier efforts, 'Thank You for Smoking' and 'Juno,' but more mature, less snarky.

As the hero of Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham, might say, keep it simple: Movies are memorable when the moral is manifest. In this case, several well-worn bromides apply: Be careful what you wish for… People who need people … Do onto others …

Bingham, played by George Clooney with the self-deprecating savoir faire he has made his stock in trade, fancies himself as a shark. He goes it alone, always moves forward, practices self-reliance. And he has the ideal job for his temperament. Bingham flies around the country firing workers “for cowards who don’t have the courage to sack their own employees,” as he explains in voiceover during the film’s opening montage. “Last year, I flew 350,000 miles. All the things you probably hate about traveling are warm reminders that I’m home.” Bingham’s single passion is collecting bonus air miles…he won’t book a flight, car or room, order a meal or buy a tie unless he earns miles with the purchase. His goal is to become the youngest man to accumulate 10 million free miles.

Unfortunately for Bingham, his own boss has plans for him worse than termination. Craig (Jason Bateman) has hired a clever young woman fresh out of Cornell who believes she can save the company time and money by firing people over the Internet, a digital solution to redundancy. Bingham realizes he must persuade Natalie (Anna Kendrick) that his job requires large doses of empathy as well as disassociation—there’s no substitute for the personal touch—so he takes her with him on the road. During the tour, they learn a few valuable lessons about human resourcing, courtesy of Natalie’s callous boyfriend and Bingham’s casual girlfriend, Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman who turns out to be the film’s true shark.

Director Jason Reitman, working from a script he and co-writer Sheldon Turner adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn, has fashioned a smart, well-made comedy that manages to be satiric and sentimental at once. The style is of the moment, but the story is vintage Hollywood, no mean feat. (Try creating romance among the terminal lounges and wi-fi suites that make up modern business class.) That said, Up in the Air owes much of its appeal to the leads. Clooney carries the film, employing his considerable charm and acting skill to make Bingham likeable despite his oft-stated indifference to other people. Farmiga is sexy, confident and amusingly businesslike in her pursuit of pleasure…she all but draws up a contract with Bingham for their periodic rendezvous arranged through complicated consultation with airline schedules.

“How much does your life weigh?” asks Bingham during cutaways to his moonlighting gig as a motivational speaker delivering his standard spiel, “What’s in Your Backpack?” Reitman works in several such parodies that comment on the film’s action, the most elaborate involving a placard of Bingham’s soon-to-be married sister and her fiancé (Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride): They can’t afford a honeymoon, so they have asked family and friends to photograph their pasteboard image in front of monuments in distant cities, a personalized version of the roaming gnome. These moments can feel grafted onto the narrative, and a pivotal incident involving Bingham’s future brother-in-law coming down with a case of cold feet (requiring a Bingham pep talk) rings false. Reitman saves the film from floating off into the clouds, however, by upending audience expectations. The ending isn’t exactly a surprise, but it does bring a daftly buoyant Bingham back down to earth. He gets what he wanted all along, and we are reminded that old clichés, reworked with imagination, are still the best clichés.