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Jason Reitman's adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel is an eloquent affair: it says a great deal about a notable sector of American life without belaboring either its subject of its audience. The edgy, low-wattage paranoia that powered the novel's game of cat-and-mouse (but-which-is-which) has been stripped from the story line, but it remains embedded in the film's visual style, which is really that of the international espionage caper.
When the film begins, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) tells us, almost giddily, that has arranged things to suit himself. Therefore he can go only downhill from there, because Up in the Air, although smart and witty, is no kind of comedy. What will happen to Ryan? We half expect his credit cards to stop working. There are one or two moments when it seems that his boss (Jason Bateman) is about to fire him. Mr Reitman makes sure that we are never quite comfortable with the story's progress. Disaster lurks in the shiny hallways of Ryan's life.
He carries very little baggage, in every sense of that term, as he flies about the country, terminating employees of other people's companies. It is his job to impose order and frankly safety on the trauma of being fired, so that an about-to-be-former employer can reduce its payroll. Ryan's mιtier may seem contemptible more than a few of his victims think so; and at least one asks him how he can live with himself, doing what he does for a living but it is as essential a function of the modern corporation as a company's purchasing department, or its office administration. This doesn't mean that what Ryan does is virtuous or productive. But a great deal of what the large modern corporation does is neither of those things.
Two things happen right after Ryan introduces himself to us in those self-satisfied tones. Both involve women. That's another way of saying that both involve the "human" side of Ryan's character that he's so proud of having suppressed. Although George Clooney, outwardly, is an extremely good-looking middle-aged man (that's really his calling card, just as it was Gable's and Bogart's and Nick Nolte's and Harrison Ford's, while we're at it. All of these men had to outgrow their youthful prettiness), he plays someone with the emotional maturity of a sixteen year-old, tops. Women in the audience will suspect this. Men will be so envious that they may miss it.
The first development looks as though Ryan's life, which was already going pretty well, has just been upgraded to first class. In the bar of a hotel, he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), his ideal playmate. The second step in their courting ritual their having introduced themselves nicely is the ostentatious display of credit cards and other signs of membership in the elite of commercial air travel. (The real American elite, of course, flies in private planes.) Alex hasn't racked up anything like Ryan's miles, but that just improves the joke when she tries to wheedle the "size" of Ryan's mileage number out of him. It's very large, but he doesn't want to brag. This looks a lot like the promised land of the Zipless Fuck that Erica Jong was looking for.
The second development is not so favorable. In fact, it threatens to end Ryan's life as he knows it. His firm has hired Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a bright young woman who believes in doing business via a high-powered version of Google Talk: video conferencing. Employees can be terminated at a distance, without anyone's having to board a plane. Ryan is dubious, to say the least, and he persuades his boss that Natalie needs some hands-on training. But he balks when he is assigned the job of providing it.
Natalie is an embryo Ryan, but her term in the corporate womb is aborted by a thoroughgoing lack of experience. One of the many details that Up in the Air doesn't masticate is the difference between a professional such as Ryan, who has built up an enormously complex body of reality-based wisdom, and a wunderkind like Natalie, for whom experience itself is thought to be unnecessary. It's an ancient theme in American business stories, but it has never been presented so poignantly. Ryan knows how to fire people without hurting them more than they want to be hurt. Natalie, for all her antisepticism, chops people up in bathtubs. She doesn't know any better.
There will be more to say about Up in the Air when it can be assumed that all interested persons have seen it. For the moment, we must limit ourself to hope that this time, please Oscar, Vera Farmiga will be recognized as the great great actress that she is. I love George Clooney, and I'm sure that you do, too; but please consider seeing this movie just for the performance of the girl from Passaic whose role in the trailer has been cut to a minimum. If Hollywood were everything that it ought to be, then Up in the Air would be but the first in a lengthy series of Thin Man comedies starring Ms Farmiga and Mr Clooney set largely at the nation's airports and their hotels. The next installment it would have to be called Down on the Ground, don't you think? would be rated N-17. (December 2009)
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