I’m not the first person to point this out, but it increasingly seems like George Clooney is the last representative of a certain kind of unapologetic movie-star acting. Clooney will never have his work analyzed the same way someone would analyze a performance by, say, Daniel Day-Lewis or Robert De Niro when he was at his best; but in the right role this can be more of a strength than a weakness. Much the way someone like Cary Grant became a legend by simply playing variations on an established persona, Clooney has been giving audiences what they expect from him since he left behind his TV origins. Clooney’s newest film, Up in the Air, is not an exception; he gives exactly the performance you expect him to give and that’s not a criticism.
The film is largely a character study about a man named Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who claims to have only spent forty out of the last 365 nights at his one room apartment in Omaha, the rest of the time has been spent traveling. Bingham is not married, he has no children, and he neither has nor desires any possessions that can’t be fit into a carry-on bag. He is not merely content with his lifestyle; he takes pride in it, even going so far as to hold public speaking events where he preaches the values of cutting the burdens out of one’s life. The lifestyle is made possible by Bingham’s unconventional job; he works for a company which sends out agents to other companies in order to deliver the bad news to the employees that they’re laying off. Bingham doesn’t take pleasure in this somewhat morbid task, though he does see a sort of dignity in his methods, but he’s primarily doing this so he can continue to live in transit.
But this way of life is being threatened. A young woman named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who has recently begun working at Bingham’s company, has proposed cutting the agency’s travel budget in favor of firing people via webcams. Bingham protests this new way of operating vehemently both because it strikes him as indecently impersonal and secondly because it would kill his traveling lifestyle. Bingham’s boss (Jason Bateman) decides to send Keener out on the road with Bingham in order to better assess the viability of her plan. Bingham reluctantly brings her along hoping he can convince her against her plans.
That summery is really pretty deceptive, firstly because I have yet to bring up the character of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who is the main love interest for George Clooney. It’s hard to fit her into a brief summery because this script can be surprisingly un-formulaic in many ways. Goran and Bingham meet early in the film and bond over a shared love of air travel and the amenities it can entail. She then leaves the film for a while as the story between Bingham and Keener develops before re-emerging somewhere in the middle of the second act.
First and foremost, it should probably be established that this whole business of Bingham’s agency threatening to turn into a web-based rather than travel based process is, for the most part, a rather elaborate MacGuffin. It’s also a MacGuffin that can rather stretch believability at times, I’m not sure I entirely buy that this company is going to be all that interested in Keener’s plans in the first place, nor do I particularly buy the elaborate on the road training they decide to put her through. However, quibbling about this is to miss the point, the real reason the film has brought these two characters together is to see how their world views will clash. Keener is someone with a rigid plan for life, she’s someone who has a very specific vision of her future which involves a husband, a suburban house, and two and a half kids; the notion of someone who would want something else for themselves is kind of a shock to her.
This clash of views does play out in a pretty amusing way, but it’s also probably one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. Keener is a character that can be almost cartoonishly naïve at times, I can understand that they were trying to create a character who was as determined in their way of seeing the world as Bingham, but her worldview is derives less of conviction than it does of obliviousness. She says and does things that I can’t really picture anyone, no matter how naïve, saying. As such she comes off less like a natural character and more as some kind of walking symbol of everything that Bingham isn’t, at least during the scenes that place more emphasis on this clash of personalities. Fortunately, the Keener character does evolve over the course of the film and becomes more believable later on, the second half of the film fares a lot better than the first.
The character of Goran also feels pretty artificial early in the film. They meet in an airport bar and start bonding over their wide array of traveler’s discount cards. Maybe there really are people who think that frequent flyer miles are dead sexy, but I’ve never met them and hope I never do. Of course that’s just a cutesy way to establish that this woman is pretty much the female equivalent of Bingham, but again the screenplay’s habit of tailoring characters to contrast the lead works against it. Fortunately, the Goran character becomes more human as the film progresses much the way the Keener character does. The relationship does work pretty well in the film as well, largely because Cloony and Farmiga have really good onscreen chemistry.
Jason Reitman, who’s consistently proving to be a reliable director of slightly stylized realities, certainly crafts the film well. Reitman is a director with the valuable talent of being able to employ a number of tricks but without allowing them to become distractions. A good example of this are the methodical steady-cam shots of Bingham’s rolling carry-on bag as it twists and pivots. He shoots it in a way that perfectly expresses Bingham’s methodical nature, but he doesn’t get carried away and turn it into some sort of extended tracking shot. That kind of ambition with restraint is a very hard tightrope to walk and it’s a skill that’s easy to overlook.
Watching Up in the Air I found myself reminded of a relatively forgotten 2005 film called The Weatherman, in which Nicholas Cage played a T.V. weatherman who needs to come to terms with their own mediocrity. Both are films about middle-aged men going through existential crises, both have similarly sarcastic voice-overs, hell, both even used Iggy Pop’s “The passenger” for their trailers (then again what trailers aren’t using that song these days?). In spite of all these similarities the two movies are perhaps opposites if one thinks about it, The Weatherman is about someone who hates his job and comes to terms with it by the end while Up in the Air is about a man who loves his job and begins to question it by the end. Perhaps what can be learned from this unintentional similarity is that discontent can hit anyone and that the feeling will still be the same even if the paths it takes is pretty different.
So, what we have here is a well acted and well directed movie with good dialogue… and it didn’t really do a lot for me. Like with An Education earlier this year, what we have here is a very well crafted movie with a story that maybe doesn’t deserve all the talent that’s been put behind it, especially during its rocky first half. This may simply case where I might just not be the right audience for this story. Though this isn’t really a comedy, the audience I was with were laughing at a lot of parts of this which weren’t all that funny to me. This is certainly a very enjoyable and entertaining movie which will probably deservedly be a hit with audiences, but I don’t think it really rises above the level of “pleasant” all that often.
*** out of Four