Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up In The Air: Review

In the new film "Up In The Air," the air-miles-addicted Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, lays out his theory on life for all when he asks his paying seminar audience "How much does your life weigh?" His view? Family and friends and their constant demands put such a drag on a person that eventually every movement becomes a chore. This extraneous baggage must be jettisoned for the good of the traveler.

It's a compelling theory and it permeates the movie.

But what's wrong with this Bingham guy? Is he a bitter, angry jerk? Not really, although his relationships only go topsoil deep. He is aloof and cold, but he's not a monster. He genuinely likes his life of airports, airport lounges, rental cars and hotel rooms.

Bingham's contentedness is surprising when you consider it's his job to travel across the United States firing people - sometimes 20 or 30 a day - for bosses who are unable or unwilling to do it themselves. It's not the kind of career most people could stomach. The pain on the faces of these layoff victims is excruciating to watch - especially in this economy, when such real life scenes are all too common.

Maybe Bingham took this job and it made him the disconnected traveler he is. Maybe he signed on because he knew it would already fit him perfectly. He is certainly an expert at jetting to his next destination unencumbered, physically and emotionally.

But Bingham does have a dream. He wants to hit 10 million air miles. He wants to get the ultimate loyalty card from American Airlines, which involves meeting the pilot during his winning flight and the notoriety of having his name put on the side of one of the company's planes.

It's an odd goal. Clearly very few people would share it. What isn't so clear is just how aware he is of this fact. What happened to him that made him the way he is? Oh, and how long can he go on unencumbered in his life?

It's a great set of questions. Unfortunately, trying to get the answers isn't as much fun as it might be.

The co-writer and director of this film is Jason Reitman, and his two previous films, "Juno" and "Thank You For Smoking," were entertaining and fueled by unique characters, clever dialogue and great stories. "Up In The Air" offers up two of the three. The story, adapted from the novel by Walter Kim, has a theme that is in fact well worn. Watching cold, lonely characters slowly thaw out is entertaining. Clint Eastwood's grouch in "Gran Turino" and Mickey Rourke's tortured boxer in "The Wrestler" are just two recent examples - among many.

What's unique about the movie is its realism. In fact, many of those fired in the movie were regular Americans who really were fired some months before. The reactions of these people, while more thought out than those occurring at their actual firings, are real.

This helps and hinders. Reitman has said in interviews that he wrote the script before the economy tanked and the firing scenes were to be played mostly for laughs. After the financial crisis hit, the scenes he filmed became far more serious. The tone of these scenes leaves the viewer unsure whether to laugh, cry or cringe. And they hurt the flow by stifling the fun that is going on in the movie outside of the boardroom. So, while nothing in the story is too telegraphed, and that is good, the humor never rises above the guffaw/chuckle point.

Still, good performances are the trump card in "Up In The Air." Clooney is very good. Vera Farmiga is wonderful as his fellow air mile-collecting enthusiast (and more). And Anna Kendrick owns the movie as Natalie Keener, the upstart at Bingham's office who, without malice, may bring an end to Bingham's current job and by extension, his lifestyle.

But the laughs, stifled by the general disconnected tone of the movie and its main character, are needed. It's such a shame none of them hit hard enough to let the audience cut loose. Then they could jump back into the bleaker bits and just relax. In the end, the non-funny side of "Up In The Air" weighed too much for the funny side. Luckily the extra baggage didn't crash this flight, but it held it back from truly soaring.

***1/2 stars (out of five)