A Familiar Trip

George Clooney helps make 'Up in the Air' entertaining, though the film feels unoriginal

If you go see Up in the Air, do not sit through the final credits. There's an incredibly catchy but annoying song that starts playing sometime after the gaffer is listed, and as I write this review, I still can't stop humming it in my head. There are other annoyances in this film, but the final song is the only one that will stick with you like blood on your Bruno Maglis.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a motivational speaker and corporate-termination specialist. Which is to say, he works for a consulting company that hires him out to fire people. If you have a bunch of employees you need to get rid of, and are too scared to face them yourself, you call Ryan Bingham, and he tells them that everything they've worked for is coming to an end. Then he goes to his hotel room and does it with a model.

Bingham's shtick is that he has no commitments and no connections in his life. He has, as a he puts it, "an empty backpack." In place of family and friends, he has frequent-flyer miles, and his life goal is to amass 10 million such miles. His frequent-flyer account is like Scrooge's gold, an end in itself.

But! And then! Two women enter Bingham's life, though he only enters one of the women. First, he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer and airport-lounge habitué. They swap VIP cards and bodily fluids and agree to meet again if they have a layover long enough for them to have a layover.

Farmiga is known for being so pretty that even gay priests are aroused by her, but she also gives a strong performance here, especially in later scenes when her character inevitably complexifies. She looks sexy but mature, probably to fit in better with Clooney, who may be the only person left in America who looks older than he actually is. Clooney seems to be capturing the older Cary Grant look about 10 years earlier than Cary Grant, which is a noble thing to do in a culture that no longer worships the sexiness of middle-age dudes.

The other woman to enter Bingham's world is fresh-out-of-business-school firebrand Natalie Keener. She thinks she knows Bingham's job better than he does and has a lot of ideas to change the company, blah blah blah. She's pretty much a character from the great character file that God wrote into the software of every screenwriter's brain. Anna Kendrick plays Keener, and though it's a two-dimensional role, she at least hits the right two dimensions. She has no pores, nor does she have much personality; her hair is pulled back so tightly that she can barely shut her eyes, and she walks like she just inserted an expensive-but-tasteful hook up her ass.

Of course, she gets paired with Clooney for his latest round of airport-hopping and job-terminating, and they bicker and then become friends and etc. Kendrick is made up to be devoid of sex appeal, so you can tell from the start that there'll be no romance between her character and Clooney's. Instead, she's there to illustrate how hollow his life is and to provide a foil for his sexy stares and witty quips.

So basically this is The Graduate for old people: 50-something Ryan Bingham meets the young Natalie Keener, a de-sexed Mrs. Robinson, who reveals the emptiness of his life. Meanwhile, the age-appropriate choice of Alex Goran tempts him as the just-right Katharine Ross figure, intensely desirable when forbidden but, in reality, not quite as cartoon-perfect as she seems to be when she's naked and bouncing. (Notably, Sam Elliott, who's married to Katharine Ross in what Hollywood types laughingly refer to as "real life," has a cameo in the film, which proves, I think, absolutely nothing.)

Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) shoots all of this in Cameron Crowe Emo Standard Style: lots of shots of small figures, sometimes silhouetted, center framed against symmetrical architectural features. It's an effective sort of still-camera image; it's just that it's been done so many times that it starts to feel like there should be inspirational words printed under the screen, and the whole thing should be framed on the wall of the conference room in a soon-to-be-failed startup in Des Moines.

While the plot, characters and cinematography are all factory-standard, the film is nonetheless tremendously entertaining, and the script is decidedly witty, at least up until the point where it inevitably changes gears. Obviously, we wouldn't be watching the movie if we didn't know that sooner or later, Clooney will want more than his traveling lifestyle, and that he'll be emotionally affected by his hotel-room flings with Goran and his forced closeness to traveling-companion Kendrick.

At this point, the film gets a little too schmaltzy for its gentile ways. Attending a wedding leads to some soul-searching on Bingham's part, for example, and there's some gratuitous hugging.

Still, Up in the Air is a decent bit of amusement. It's a not-terribly memorable film about a man on the verge of age-related memory loss that warms the heart without overheating it to dangerous levels. Its best features are its wry script and Clooney's command of the screen; if these occur within a set of story conceits and images that are borrowed from earlier, more original films, well, at least the filmmakers stole from decent sources and didn't just add explosions and supercars to a remake of Benji.


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