By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
If Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup (“A Few Good Men”-1992) was correct in assessing that you can’t handle the truth, then you may not like Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.” Caustic and whimsical, often at the same time, this character study of a free spirit extraordinaire, exemplarily portrayed by George Clooney, pulls no punches.
Meet Mr. Clooney’s Ryan Bingham. Every ounce of you says you shouldn’t like him. Devil-may-care and seemingly irresponsible, his lack of loyalty to anyone or any thing makes William Hurt’s “Accidental Tourist” (1988) seem like a Founding Father. And wait until you get a load of what he does for a living. For gosh sakes, he fires people.
His firm, hired by companies looking to minimize litigation and too spineless to fire folks themselves, considers Ryan their ace hatchet man.
Traversing the skies 325 days a year, when he is not in the air he is dismissing someone…sometimes issuing as many as one dozen pink slips a day. What’s more, he likes his work.
For one, the incessant travel allows him to pursue his rolling stone lifestyle. Evidently borne out by an evolving romance with kindred spirit Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), he prefers trysts of the ships-that-pass-in-the-night variety. And adding chutzpah to injury, Mr. Bingham feels no one can break the bad news as professionally as he does.
We almost buy his spiel, both across the desk from his staggered prey and in hotel meeting rooms where he gives motivational speeches about ridding one’s self of emotional baggage. Stranger still, he almost seems to believe it when he tells a victim, “Anyone who ever changed the world or built an empire sat where you are right now.”
But if you really want to see cold, wait until you meet Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener, the hotsy-totsy, top-of-her-class Cornell grad bucking to be the firm’s chief terminator. Right now she’s flying with Ryan, learning from the master. But this Mademoiselle De Farge has a computer program in the works that aims to guillotine workforces en masse.
Which is where the two diverge. Here, a first glint of Mr. Bingham’s humanity peeks out from its gray flannel shell. You see, he’s mensch enough to abhor blanket axioms like “it’s business” to justify greed. Like an old pro in any pursuit, he doesn’t want to see his craft relegated to bush league technology.
Thus we are introduced to raisons d’etre that skate on thin ice…the sort of dramatic circumstances that might have spurred Johnny Mercer to caution that “something’s gotta give.” And soon, whether by comparison to Miss Kendick’s butcher of downsizing or due to Mr. Clooney’s likeability, we filmgoing idealists start to think redemption.
But be careful, dear reader. This isn’t your usual tale of magical epiphany. It rides its own track. There is award-worthy creativity stitched into the soulfully searing reality that lines this delve into human relationships. Director Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel employs detective story surprises bound to throw you for a loop or two.
We wonder where the parameters are, how truly committed the protagonist is to his isolationism. A needling assignment foisted on him as a sister’s wedding nears supplies a running gag. While vicariously enjoying Ryan’s footloose and fancy free philosophy, we can’t help but cheer each time he skirts and nearly crosses into a middle class convention.
Likewise, the romantic in you holds out hope when he meets Vera Farmiga’s splendidly exacted Alex, who boldly declares herself his female counterpart, if not in such ladylike terms. How it plays out is for me to know and you to speculate. Suffice it to note that superb character transitions managed by both parties make this a unique love story.
Meanwhile, back at the home office in Omaha, Ryan’s superior, depicted with heartless glee by Jason Bateman, sharpens his corporate knives. The Recession has worsened. During one of Bingham’s rare stopovers, the boss bubbles over with the prospect of a land office business. They just might need the Young Turk’s conveyor belt firing system.
Filmmaker Reitman does an interesting thing here. Using a quick-splice, slideshow approach to represent the frightened face of unemployment, he achieves a moderate but not completely callous distance. The treatment, ultimately an indictment of business as usual, makes it all the more chilling. We’re left to fill in the saddening blanks.
A tangentially astute, present-minded look at current events makes this movie valuable. Though not quite to the Recession what “The Graduate” (1967) is to the 1960s, it subtly aspires to that category of artistic representation. Mixing historical import with an engaging look at the human condition, “Up in the Air” amuses with down to Earth truths.
“Up in the Air,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Jason Reitman and stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. Running time 109 minutes
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