Seated in an exit row
Up in the Air, recession comedy-drama, rated R, Regal Stadium 14, 3.5 chiles
When you spend 322 days a year in the air, in airports, and in hotel rooms and bars, and only “43 miserable days at home,” you travel light. You don’t tote around much baggage, physical or emotional. And for Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), that’s just about heaven on earth— or 40,000 feet above it. “To know me is to fly with me,” he says, leaning back contentedly in his businessclass seat. “This is where I live.”
He knows his way around every airport in the country, and he has profiling down to a science. “Get in line behind an Asian,” he counsels in a voice-over. “They pack light and wear slip-on shoes. Stay away from old people, and especially families with young kids.” Listen to the man; the time you’ll save in airport security alone will be more than worth the price of admission.
In Ryan’s line of work, emotional commitment is a luxury he can’t afford and frankly doesn’t see much use for. He’s a careertransition specialist— in other words, he fires people for a living. Downsizing corporations hire Ryan, through his firm, to do their dirty work for them. He flies in to the city where the ax work is to be done, sets himself up in a corporate conference room, and as employees file in, he drops his blade across their professional necks with a polish that almost seems soothing. “Anybody who
ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are now,” is his reassuring patter to the doomed.
The people you’ll see at the beginning of this movie getting the news that they’re suddenly unemployed aren’t actors. They’re real people who have lost their jobs, invited by writer-director Jason Reitman to re-create their reactions to being laid off. Reitman is a talented second-generation filmmaker (his father is Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters and Dave) whose previous features are the excellent Thank You for Smoking and Juno. This may be his best work yet.
Two women enter Ryan’s life early in the film, complicating his carefree existence. The first is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a traveling woman with a lifestyle so like Ryan’s that it’s synchronicity at first sight. They meet in a hotel bar, and the erotic dance of seduction they go through, comparing credit cards, club cards, and frequentflyer miles, is one of the smartest, funniest, and most original pickup scenes ever shot. Farmiga ( The Departed) and Clooney are a treat together. They keep the wit and chemistry bouncing back and forth like a modern-day Tracy and Hepburn, if you can picture Hepburn sashaying across a hotel room wearing nothing but a man’s necktie looped around her waist.
The second woman is Natalie (Anna Kendrick of Twilight), an ambitious young tyro hired by Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) to streamline the firing business. Natalie is a pain in the ass, a gradschool whiz with a major in heartlessness who has figured out that you can fire a lot more people for a lot less money if you do it via teleconferencing. Ryan is ordered to take Natalie with him on a last round of face-to-face layoffs so she can study the process and finetune her proposal. This uneasy partnership is almost as much fun to watch as the other one, and Kendrick easily holds her own with the older pros.
The underlying issue here, coming as it does at a time of doubledigit unemployment, is hardly the stuff of comedy, and Reitman is adept at making sure we never lose sight of the cruel human cost of the layoff process. “We take people at their most fragile, and we set them adrift,” Ryan observes with clear-eyed candor. He and Natalie arrive at their rendezvous with the soon-to-be-superfluous with the terminal efficiency of the uniformed harbingers of death in The Messenger.
Like the Depression-era comedies of Astaire and Rogers, Up in the Air has the surface gloss of a polished dance floor. It’s got a few things to say about dignity and unemployment and family and commitment, but it never lets them trump the escapist entertainment on which this picture travels. The screenplay, by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, updatesWalter Kirn’s 2001 novel with 2009 relevance and smart, funny dialogue.
Clooney is the avatar of perfectly groomed movie stardom, and he plays Ryan’s hard-shell smoothness so impeccably that you almost hate to see signs of human feeling and the siren song of emotional engagement begin to infect his blithe spirit. Kendrick delivers Natalie’s hard-drive heart and untempered certainty about life with a virtuoso flair, and her inevitable meltdown is one of the movie’s inspired comic scenes. And Farmiga, much appreciated in the industry but not until now by the public, finally gets her breakout role and nails it with her incarnation of a man’s moral compass in a woman’s body.
There’s a bit of disappointment to the final act, including a surprise twist that seems a bit of a cheat, not entirely justified by what had gone before. But for most of the way, Up in the Air is intelligent, highflying comic entertainment, and it makes a smooth landing.
Firing squad: Anna Kendrick and George Clooney