Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick
Like the planes upon which the frequent flyers at its heart so frequently travel, Up in the Air rises and falls, at times reaching great heights but at others descending from its peaks of quality. It is, of course, a romantic comedy, and at times it does fall prey to the clichés and overly contrived emotional choreography which so often blights films within the genre. Yet this is a film which tries to do things slightly better and to offer slightly more and, pleasingly given such admirable intentions, manages to succeed. Not in a feat-of-human-endeavour Concorde manner, but the target destination is ably reached, even if there is some turbulence along the way.
Dispensing with the aeronautical similes momentarily, Up in the Air is ostensibly a simple character transformation piece. Ryan Bingham, portrayed with predictable charm by the ever-lovable Clooney, is an employment termination specialist (or some other similarly heartless title), employed by various companies and managers without the requisite stones to dispense with the services of their workers to do the dirty work for them. By espousing platitudes and distributing positivity packets Mr. Bingham attempts to soften the blow felt by the newly unemployed. Or, more accurately, protect the company’s liability and stop the more volatile redundants from making a scene. You say potato… The crucial impact of the job, however, is that which it has on the man who inhabits it. In order to can workers in Detroit on Monday, Portland Tuesday, Boston Wednesday – and so on ad nauseum – Ryan spends the majority of his time in the eponymous location. Problematic as this may be for some, our man revels in it. A vagrant of the skies, the lack of attachment and burden is liberating – so much so that he presents seminars extolling the virtues of his ‘philosophy’.
Such a seemingly selfish and uncaring character would ordinarily be one to whom it was hard to warm. But it’s a testament to the roundedness that the character is given by the writing, and the unforeseeable likeability he is given by his inhabitant, that at no point are negative emotions towards him stirred. Although perhaps one might be eager to ask why Ryan subscribes to his particular world view (for no substantial explanation is ever proffered), such opacity actually adds to the integrity of the construction. No attempt is made to boil down life’s myriad experiences and their cumulative effect into one poignant monologue or unfortunate back-story, and it is only via a naive and blinkered view of the world that one could thus conclude an unbelievability to Clooney’s character.
The man himself is, predictably, superb. The decline of the ‘movie star’ and the lack of ‘box office names’ in modern cinema is a more than well-trodden path – and a facile enough one to go down in the first place – but, whether or not such monikers can be attached to anyone currently taking their place on the big screen, there are few, if any, more watchable figures in the industry at present. It is perhaps the effortlessness of his performances which end up giving them their gravitas, and this is no exception. Though this is not a poor film made good by its central performance, it is a film whose quality would be greatly diminished were that performance not of such a high standard. Also deserving of mention for the quality of her turn is the confusingly attractive Anna Kendrick (you may not see it at first, but it’ll come). As a character who could have so easily slipped into intolerably annoying territory – the precocious and idealistic upstart in Bingham’s illusion-shattering industry – Kendrick manages to do a stellar job of rounding out the story’s intentions, while lending both comedic moments and a weight of meaning. And again, as with Clooney’s character, credit must be given to writer/director Reitman for the well-judged material.
There are, though, those moments of descent. Just as the film is amping up the quality and gathering momentum, the brakes of genre convention are applied and things begin to wobble. On two or three occasions the pacing slows jarringly and attempts to tug at the heartstrings are made in a blatant and unnecessary manner, to the detriment of the overall piece. It feels as though concessions are being made regarding the overall intent and execution of the movie, and, given that without these it could have truly flourished, they are deeply unfortunate. At no point is this truer than towards the dénouement, where things take an excruciatingly misguided turn. Yet at some stage during each of these nosedives the controls are righted and a recovery is made – and at no point is this truer than ever so slightly nearer that dénouement.
While there undeniably lies within it a parable about the importance of companionship, Up in the Air presents more than that simplistic tale. Issues about a transient existence, self-reliance and comfort, and the nature of life’s relationships are all raised. Admittedly the presentation of these things is not profound nor life-altering, but nor does it try to be. Important questions are simply proffered for consideration, but can be easily ignored should one choose to do so. If that unfortunate choice were made though, Up in the Air becomes little more than a middling romantic comedy, lifted by the quality of its performances. And while, due to the moments when it offers nothing more than exactly that, it doesn’t elevate itself totally out of sight from such a classification, it undoubtedly does enough to fly closer to the sun.