Up in the Air is brilliant – for a film set "in the world of high-flying business travel". Which may sound like the movie equivalent of Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport, but this is no airline marketing exercise.
If you thought Jason Reitman couldn't give one of his characters a worse job than Thank You For Smoking's Nick Naylor, then think again. What's worse than a tobacco lobbyist, I hear you ask? Well, meet Ryan Bingham (Clooney). What does he do for a living? He fires people. When he's not giving motivational speeches about emptying the cluttered backpack of life, Ryan goes to companies who are too wussy to fire their own staff and does it for them. Which means he gets to spend almost all of his time travelling and is happily heading towards his target of 10 million frequent flier miles, until new colleague Natalie (Kendrick) comes along and ruins it by oh-so-helpfully suggesting they just fire people by teleconference instead.
Ryan is the invention of Walter Kirn, whose 2001 novel provided the basis for the film; Kirn also wrote the book the movie Thumbsucker was based on. Like The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air is laugh-out-loud funny, although it's less absurd and more sardonic. It's also terribly zeitgeisty, perhaps painfully so, in that you could (if you were a bit pretentious) talk about the things it's saying about how impersonal modern life is and how we're all too obsessed with status and stuff, and we forget the importance of human relationships. Or you could just observe that the BlackBerry shots perhaps border on the excessive.
A film about a guy who fires people for a living and whose life revolves around frequent flier miles may sound either utterly depressing or like Brett Easton Ellis should have written it, but Up in the Air is just what you'd hope for from Reitman's latest. It's sharp, fresh and blackly funny. If you've been made redundant, you may think it sounds crass to make comedy hay out of people losing their jobs, but that's not Up in the Air's game. Indeed Reitman and co. advertised for people in just that situation to come and talk about how it felt. The film is peppered with on-camera asides about how it feels to lose your job, and they're all real. Up in the Air doesn't make light from this situation. If anything, it's a poignant reminder of how central work can be to self-image and self-worth.
It's an intriguing performance from Clooney, too. Watch him for five minutes and you'll Bingham is a status-obsessed airhead. Give it ten and the loveable rogue quality may have seeped through. But it's the uncertainty about life, the unwillingness to let anyone in through his carefully manufactured veneer and the vulnerability that comes from his lack of emotional experience which - with deft handling from Clooney - give Bingham his grit, and it's the interplay with fellow frequent flyer Alex (Vera Farmiga), as well as co-worker Natalie, that helps keep the film bouncing along, while Kendrick is delightfully irritating as the naive graduate and corporate drone in the making who doesn't understand the impact her actions will have on other people. If you encounter anyone similar, you'd do well to make them watch this film.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with co-writer/director Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld; a 2-minute featurette on Shadowplay, the small film studio that created the opening credits for Up In The Air; five deleted scenes; and a couple of trailers.