Up in the Air

October, 2009, Comedy

 

 

This may be the best movie you can’t see right now; it showed last week before its commercial release at Aspen’s Filmfest and easily won best of show. Canadian writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking) has adapted Walter Kirn’s novel about corporate America into a savagely funny and surprisingly affecting commentary on the business practices of U.S. companies and in doing so, provides George Clooney with perhaps his finest role to date. Witty, insightful and sweetly rueful about how some of us make our livings inside corporate bureaucracies, Air is a brilliant comedy and one of the best films of the year.

 

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a cog in one of the strangest wheels in American industry - - he’s a specialist in “downsizing”; the art of firing people. Employed by a firm who specializes in thinning the herds of clients too timid to do their won dirty work, Bingham lives out of his suitcase, crisscrossing the country to hand out pink slips with a cynicism he mistakenly takes for simple, clear-eyed realism. Articulate, rudderless and aggressively single, he finds solace in parlaying a generous expense account into small, transitory affirmations of his importance by amassing enough frequent flyer miles and hotel stays to qualify for V.I.P. status with the various impersonal hotels and airlines he patronizes. This lifestyle inevitably provides ample opportunity for one-night stands; he thus meets Alex, a mid-level executive also hooked on the allure of travel perks. After bedding her, moves on to his next assignment; the training of a brainy young woman who’s been hired by his boss to determine if the work he does can be done via video conferencing. The prospect of being rendered obsolete himself first annoys then terrifies him.

The acolyte’s name is Natalie (Anna Kendrick) an insufferably smug young business school graduate half Bingham’s age who regards him as an unimaginative anachronism. But as she follows wearily in his wake from one city to the next, dispensing the misery intimately associated with their work, she comes to appreciate that handing people the devastating news of job loss isn’t as susceptible to electronic interface as she initially presumed it would be. In his blunt refusal to “guild the lily” for those getting the ax, Bingham retains a fundamental conviction that people are in fact more important than the work they do and thus deserve decent treatment as they’re sent off into the terrifying world of unemployment.

 

When his relationship with Alex grows more personal through their participation in the wedding of Alex’s estrange sister, Bingham decides that perhaps his self-absorbed lifestyle isn’t so healthy after all…but in the film’s best scene and most poignant scene, Alex sends him back to his wandering,  corporate-gypsy existence, armed with a wounded but more accurate self-image…

 

Clooney, (the closest thing thing to a contemporary Cary Grant that Hollywood has produced in the last couple of decades) captures Bingham’s nonchalant self-importance perfectly; with off-hand comments and an air of crisp disrespect for the air of bogus sentimentality which surrounds his work, the actor fashions a Willie Loman for 21st century, hiding his personal failures behind the pseudo affluence his career provides. Under Reitman’s deft direction (and with a nearly sublime script, co-written by Sheldon Turner) Clooney and his fellow actors create a series of dead-on portraits of corporate life as it’s actually lived in this country; no small feat for any film, especially one as basically light-hearted and wistful as this one. As Alex, Vera Farmiga (The Departed) blends smoldering sexuality, feminine softness and cold-hearted rationalization in creating one of the most seductive - - and self-serving - - romantic leads of recent memory. This talented actress deserves more screen time in roles with sufficient complexity to fully realize her obvious talents. Only Ms. Kendrick, an early success on the Broadway musical stage, seems miscast; her Natalie is a bit too brittle and affected to reside comfortably inside this otherwise perfectly cast film.

 

Have Reitman and Turner actually participated in a number of real corporate meetings? How else could their lines have such a nuanced ring of authenticity? In one telling vignette after another, they capture the vacuous platitudes which so often pass for real communication in the business world, capturing the vocabulary and cadence of its awkward confrontations to perfection. Anyone who’s ever been involved in managing the personnel issues of a large company will squirm with recognition at what this pair (and their gifted cast) have created.

 

Reitman’s career has blossomed after the surprising success of Juno; at the tender age of 32, he displays a maturity behind the camera directors twice his age should envy; let’s hope this delightful and perceptive comedy brings him a large audience, so that he can bring us many more examples of the remarkable talents he displays here.

 

The Verdict? A clever, imaginative, laugh-out-loud comedy with far more substance than anything this light-hearted has a right to contain.      

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