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February 4, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Up in the Air

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In light of the recent economic recession claiming jobs and livelihoods all over the world, Up in the Air treads a dangerous line. Play too much to the comedy side of things or present job losses in a too unrealistic light, it runs the risk of trivialising the effects of the recession and making tragedies seem silly and inconsequential. Swing too much to the other side, however, and Up in the Air becomes a dreary treatise on the effects of foolish economic dalliances, weighing down the audience with a fierce and unrepentant reality. Thankfully, Up in the Air manages to keep its feet firmly on the ground during most of its running time, not shying away from presenting the human cost of recession and the advances of technology, but at the same time presenting it in such a way as to be palatable nonetheless.

There is one unfortunate problem in Up in the Air, though, one which I shall address quickly. While George Clooney’s travelling terminator Ryan Bingham is an affable, charismatic person, Clooney’s performance reminiscent of Cary Grant at his best, Up in the Air does make the mistake of presenting him as a bit too charismatic. While the montages of employees reacting to the consequence on Bingham’s speaking with them are often blunt and heart-rending, particularly so given that the majority of them did actually lose their jobs to the recession and are saying their words from the heart rather than reading from a script, the times we are shown Bingham directly firing an employee do come across as sugar-coated.

While his young tag-along, Natalie, gets the difficult cases—a woman who threatens suicide, a 57-year-old auto worker with nowhere to go—Bingham easily coaxes his victims into a state of neutered acceptance. While this may be Bingham’s job, he seems to do it all too easily, and while those he has fired leave the room sad, one gets the feeling that they’ll all get up tomorrow and immediately achieve their dreams, just because Bingham said the right thing to them. It dances around the issue a little bit, and by the end of the film, it does feel like some of the good work screenwriters Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner do is undermined by Bingham’s elevation to a near-mythic status of persuasiveness.

However, dwelling on that problem for too long can mean that one can miss the point of Up in the Air—rather than being a film about the recession, Jason Reitman’s third film in the director’s chair is a film about isolation and connection set against the backdrop of a shaky economic climate. Clooney’s Bingham is a man who prides himself on his lack of personal ties—he presents a seminar that actively encourages purging yourself of your relationships, he rarely talks to anyone he’s known for more than ten minutes, and he shows great reluctance when asked to do something nice for his soon-to-be-wed sister.

However, underneath that charmingly disconnected exterior, there is a man looking for a relationship, a man slowly brought out of his shell by his unwanted sidekick, cocky Cornell graduate Natalie (who is played by Twilight’s Anna Kendrick in a startlingly good performance, full of a hidden vulnerability and warmth and lightyears ahead of those hogging the limelight in that ‘film’), and by the disarmingly brash and sexy Alex (Vera Farmiga, doing decent work here).

Reitman and Turner navigate Bingham’s personal awakening with subtlety and sharp characterisation, and while the film may be full of grandstanding moments (Bingham’s conferences, Bingham’s testing of Natalie, the ‘stereotyping’ monologue, the testing of Natalie’s proposed computer system), they never feel disingenuous or inserted for the purpose of making the film look ‘better’ and more ‘dramatic’. Up in the Air is a look at human relationships and how people approach them that always feels natural and believable, if never wholly realistic.

Up in the Air is smart, funny, dramatic and quietly optimistic, a film that may feel understated, but never cynically engineered to be so. With a fantastic performance from Clooney, a star-making turn from Kendrick, and some top-notch writing from Reitman and Turner, this is a film that balances its sensitive topical setting with some basic, subtly conveyed human truths, and balances it with skill and style.

4 out of 5.

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