Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

* * * * *

(2009, Dir. Jason Reitman)

Up in the Air is something for our, and all, time. Its message has as much to do with the particularity of the recession as it does with the universality of loneliness and companionship (love is sparingly written into this film). As if a spoof of his own smooth formula, George Clooney delivers a truly career-defining performance, provoking more comedy and sympathy than would seem possible for a middle-aged bachelor who has willfully ostracised family and friends from his life of plush homelessness.

Clooney plays the corporate downsizer, Ryan Bingham, thriving amid the smithereens of capitalism: an all too appropriate and familiar depiction of the world as it is right now for a disappointingly sporadic audience on opening night at my local Odeon. Bingham is always on the move, charming the pants off disposable women and easing the pain for disposed-of workforces. He is a Demosthenes (without the stutter) for the credit-crunch-era, paid to fly around the US and let people down gently; to inspire faint glimmers of hope for the men and women who have lost their jobs and who, in each interview, either deliberately avoid or stare right through the camera lens at us, bereft of everything except despair.

The two supporting actresses could not be better casted. Vera Farminga was nominated for a Golden Globe for her outstanding performance. She plays Alex Goran, another business cog wandering alone, even defining herself over the phone to Bingham thus: "Just think of me as you, but with a vagina". We do not know much more about her than this, with the plot centering around Bingham. When Alex begins sleeping with him, it is an implicitly acknowledged, fun and physical, hotel-affair.

Meanwhile Anna Kendrick is casted brilliantly as the sensitive but determined Natalie Keener, a novice whose business plan is about to alter Bingham's lifestyle; the company will soon make people redundant by web cam in order to cut expenditure on flights. After remonstrating with his boss (Jason Bateman), Bingham is told to take Natalie on his travels and show her the soul-destroying ropes of the industry. While on the road / up in the air, Natalie's long term boyfriend ditches her, causing an outburst of emotion witnessed by both Alex and Bingham. This leads to a very amusing collision of philosophies on romance when the two opportunists try to console her.

Steadily a motif emerges, as Bingham makes various motivational speeches in which he romanticises the prospect of travel and job-flexibility with an emotional-baggage analogy. The repeated distinction between weight and lightness bears resemblance to Milan Kundera's dilemma in his most celebrated novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: is it better to live life in the perpetual fast lane or to negotiate a perceived destination carefully? By the end of the film, the answer seems to be the latter, but the door is cleverly left open by the plot's most profound irony; that when Bingham falls for Alex having been constantly reminded of the importance of companionship by the hilarious cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiance, and by Natalie's personal life, the comfort-zone of intimacy he believes he has discovered - that he has begun to believe in anything other than opportunism - may be the becoming of his humanity, yet it proves to be the undoing of any happiness. This is cinematographised with elegance and subtlety, when for instance, at yet another airport terminal, the quiet, rumoring audio and a slow zoom transform a strapping George Clooney and his fashionable suitcase into trivial and desolate figures. And then Bingham speaks futilely, as opposed to calling out, to an already departed Alex, "I'm alone". In these final phases of the film, a wedding, a dejecting Elliot Smith soundtrack and a nostalgic return for Bingham to an empty high school that serenades him in silence with old team photographs and trophies, propel this always relevant narrative and its tragic hero towards their inevitable destination: up in the air.

This has to be one of the finest English-language films of the year, capped by a cameo from the immediately recognisable and venerable Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski). All have played their part in welding the ingredients for what should be a rom-com into a social commentary that is utterly compelling and serious. This movie demands several sittings and deserves the silverware it will surely reap at next month's Academy Awards. Five indefatigable stars.

1 comment:

  1. 5 stars indeed. perhaps even better the second time round - or was it the company?