Friday, January 22, 2010


A secure job in turbulent times

By Edward Copeland
When something receives the wide swath of rave reviews that Up in the Air has and you are a latecomer in getting to see to it, it is understandable to begin viewing the film with a healthy degree of skepticism. Soon after its beginning though, Jason Reitman's movie won me over, even though it's far from a flawless film.

George Clooney does what he does best as Ryan Bingham, playing a charmer with a healthy dose of the wiseass in him as he performs his rather mercenary job, flying from city to city telling employees of companies too timid to do their own layoffs, that their jobs are no longer available. Needless to say, the fired workers getting this bad news from a man they've never met before react in a myriad of ways.

It's the perfect job for Bingham, who has insulated himself from any real connection to the world, estranging himself from his family, choosing fleeting trysts over any lasting relationships and going so far as to give speeches as to how to downsize your world into a backpack so you carry as little baggage as possible. The constant travel, and Bingham's goal for hitting an astronomical number of frequent flyer miles, is enough to make him content.

Then he's called back to the home office in Omaha by his boss Craig (Jason Bateman) to learn of an exciting "game-changing" development in the way they do business. The brilliant idea comes from 24-year-old Cornell grad Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who sells Craig on the idea of giving the to-be-canned workers the bad news via computer connection from the Omaha office as a cost-cutting measure.

Needless to say, Ryan finds this idea repugnant and sets out to show Natalie why it won't work, first in the office and then, by Craig's order, by taking her on the road with him to do some layoffs the old-fashioned way. (Of course, you would think in an economy as shaky as the one in which we currently reside, companies would start cost-cutting by ceasing to use services such as the one offered by Craig's company, grow some balls and fire their employees for free.)

Of course, Natalie does see the shortcomings in her impersonal approach and finds herself personally affected by some of the workers they encounter. Ryan, who is carrying on a casual fling with another frequent traveler he's encountered (Vera Farmiga), finds his lifestyle questioned by the young Natalie who can't understand how anyone can be happy living a life a solitary as Bingham's.

If you took Up in the Air apart, it sounds quite formulaic: committed middle-age bachelor and young ambitious businesswoman each learn from one another and question their career choice. However, the script by Reitman and Sheldon Turner based on a novel by Walter Kim, breathes so much fresh air into the business with sparkling dialogue and interspersing snappy individual scenes of scripted firings using cameos by solid character actors such as J.K. Simmons with interviews with real people who lost their jobs and get a chance to say what they would have if they hadn't been shocked and devastated at the time.

The trio of the main actors: Clooney, Kendrick and Farmiga are all excellent, especially Kendrick, who gets to show the most shadings to her character. Reitman's direction stays pretty much on the mark until the third act when Up in the Air loses its way a bit and the sudden change in the work resolution doesn't really fly since it seems as if a lot of money was wasted on something they decide to discontinue rather quickly. Also, one other twist I saw coming 20 miles down the road and I have a hard time believing a cynic such as Ryan Bingham wouldn't have seen it either. Up in the Air provides a nice, enjoyable flight, but you are definitely traveling in coach.

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It does seem like Reitman happened upon the perfect topic for a film given recent developments in the job market. I live in South Carolina, and I saw a newspaper yesterday pointing out that the state has the fourth largest unemployment rate in the nation, at about 12 percent. Up in the Air balances out its bleak qualities with the charm of its actors, as you point out. I liked watching a film that at least partially knows what's going on.
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