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Review: Up In the Air

Flight pattern: Reitman takes a familiar turn
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 2, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars


Up In The Air | Directed by Jason Reitman | Written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn | with George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Anna Kendrick, Danny McBride, and Amy Morton | Paramount | 104 minutes
No director pulls off the bait-and-switch as craftily as Jason Reitman. He gets you thinking that you're watching a hip, caustic comedy subverting the status quo, but by the end, he's vindicated all the platitudes he seemed to scorn.

In Thank You for Smoking (2005), he starts with a vitriolic, black-comic assault on malignant corporate practices (emphasizing his protagonist's breezy amorality) and ends up with an endorsement of capitalism and the American Dream. In Juno, he takes a kooky, non-conformist 16-year-old and turns her into a proud unwed mother and pro-life poster child. Now, in his adaptation of Walter Kirn's brittle, sardonic novel Up in the Air, he converts an appealing anti-hero with a disturbingly cogent philosophy of alienation into an apologist for family values.

But getting to that point is almost worth the letdown. The opening imagery offers a pleasing if obvious irony: the view from an airliner of the fascinatingly geometric abstracts of the American landscape backed by "This Land Is Your Land" on the soundtrack. (I'd have preferred Talking Heads' "The Big Country.") The passenger is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), whose clipped, clever voiceover provides a bracing commentary on the proceedings. Like Clooney's title hatchet man in Michael Clayton, Bingham serves a custodial function for the corporate world: he works for a company that fires people. He travels from city to city easing what he euphemistically refers to as "career transitioning" with a pep talk and a packet of spurious options. As his cynical superior, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), puts it, "These are the worst times on record for America; this is our moment."

Bingham perversely embraces the job. Mostly, he loves the rootlessness of perpetually flying, living out of his luggage in identical hotels, and never making a connection with anyone that lasts longer than his flight itinerary. (His goal is to amass 10 million frequent-flyer miles.) He also freelances as a motivational lecturer, deriving his philosophy from his lifestyle. It's best, he tells his classes, to pack light. Toss out whatever has a hold on you: possessions, friends, family.

What will bring Bingham down to earth? Perhaps fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga). Like Bingham's, her career keeps her airborne, and their mating dance — comparing airlines, hotel preferences, and mileage tallies ("I bet yours is enormous," she says) — is one of the film's funnier bits. Her blasé, hedonistic attitude matches Bingham's own. "Think of me," she tells him, "as yourself, only with a vagina." Sounds as if this could get serious.

Or perhaps it might be Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an upstart, Girl Scouty woman with the bright idea of modernizing terminations by conducting them off-site via video. Bingham grudgingly takes this threat to his fly-by-night sinecure on the road to initiate her into the nasty process of conducting downsizing face-to-face. Might he begin to see the business anew, through Natalie's relatively innocent eyes?

Whatever, you know the fix is in once Bingham has to attend the wedding of his estranged sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), to a Gumpish yokel (Danny McBride). A scenario reminiscent of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, it's as glib and false as Bingham's spiel to stunned, newly canned ex-employees. After entertaining us so well with his charismatic nihilism, this anti-hero deserves better.

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