When Up in the Air was announced to be coming to theatres near you in 2009 I looked at the poster and thought “Well that looks boring” and decided to watch Up instead, a film with three less words in the title but packing a huge emotional wallop that we have all come to experience from that film.
However, with the magic of BBC iPlayer, I saw that it was on and decided to give the film a chance. After all, it was by the guy who made Thank You for Smoking and Juno and between 2009 and 2014 I’d watched and loved both those films so I might as well give this one a chance.
Up in the Air centres around Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who works for the almost harmlessly named Careers Transitions Corporation (CTC) which means he travels the United States firing people for bosses who are “pussies who don’t have the balls to sack their employees”. He loves his life in the skies, feeling at home in the airport and the skies rather than his tiny and sparsely filled apartment.
However Bingham is called in by his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) to the CTC’s offices in Omaha, Nebraska to announce that he has hired some new blood, in the form of recently graduated Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), with new ideas. Instead of flying people across the country to fire people, she proposes to fire people via videoconference, thus saving a fortune for the company. This, to say the least, disgusts Bingham.
After a confrontation between Bingham and Keener, with Bingham asserting that Keener has no idea how to fire someone in real life, Gregory decides to send Keener with Bingham on the road to show her how firing is done. And thus the tale begins, between modern efficiency and the personal touch as well as a flowering relationship between Bingham and another travelling businesswoman Alexandra ‘Alex’ Gordon (Vera Famiga).
I must say that that, despite constantly confusing Up in the Air for George Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air, this film really grows on you as the film progresses. George Clooney, for all his suave persona, has never really been an actor that I find necessary to watch, let alone seek out purposefully. However with Clooney in the role of Bingham, he makes someone who may have been seen as cold and un-relatable as charming and almost endearing.
Bingham’s life of self-imposed ostracism is surmised brilliantly in his motivational speeches called “What’s in my Bag?” using his suitcase as a metaphor to justify his unattached existence by feeling that a life with relationships will only weigh you down. Yet this defiance of cultural norms would be nothing without challenge to obscure his view of the world, which is where Keener and Alex come in.
Admittedly I had never heard of Anna Kendrick or Vera Famiga prior to seeing this film, despite seeing Famiga in Source Code and Kendrick in Scott Pilgrim vs The World and ParaNorman however it is their performances that truly ground the film (pardon the pun).
Kendirck as the inexperienced, yet ambitious graduate gives the film a viewing point for Bingham’s actions. Though at times she becomes slightly irritating due to her complete ineptitude at firing people, it is only briefly done to highlight how she is trying to best the veteran Bingham.
Aside from this, Keener actually serves as quite a standard character, trying to get Bingham to see the value of societal norms and that relationships and family are not necessarily things that tie you down and, while on her own she is not successful, it does provide good opportunity for Bingham and Keener to become fuller characters which on their own they may not have achieved.
Yet, while Keener is a good character and partially integral to the overall storyline, there are occasions that leave you feeling that they should focus more on Bingham’s relationship with Alex and of that of his estranged family. And on that note, let’s have a look at Alex.
This is where the film thrives in my book as, while Bingham and Keener’s relationship gives Bingham verbal acknowledgement of the need for relationships with other people, Alex is the subtle version, although it is blatantly obvious to the audience. To see their relationship progress is one that actually pulls on the heartstrings, with them checking their flight plans so that they can hook up again with what turns from casual sex into a more meaningful relationship.
Famiga plays the role beautifully and, while her role is sometimes a bit obvious, as well as the eventual outcome of her and Bingham’s relationship, she creates a more human side to both seemingly unfeeling people, even giving a rather good speech on how the young always go for perfection in relationship when those who are older, and more experienced, realise that a compromise is always necessary.
However what most caught me off-guard about this film was one of its smaller, yet overarching storylines, being that of Bingham’s younger sister’s wedding. Throughout the film Bingham is getting Keener to take pictures of a cardboard cut-out of his sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), and her fiancé Jim (Danny McBride) in various places since they cannot afford a honeymoon trip.
Yet on the day of the wedding, which Bingham turns up to despite being characteristically cold about it for most of the film, the fiancé has cold feet and Bingham is called upon by Kara (Amy Morton), Bingham’s older sister, to use his motivational skills to get Julie’s fiancé to commit, something which seems counterintuitive to Bingham’s philosophy.
Not to give what was said in the scene away, though some of it was in the trailer, the scene is actually rather touching in a refreshingly honest sought of way, with human connections being seen to be part and partial of a fuller life, whatever form they may be.
Jason Bateman also deserves a quick bit of praise as, despite his messy CV, with films like Horrible Bosses (and presumably Horrible Bosses 2), Identity Thief and The Switch to name a few distorting his acting capabilities, reuniting with director Jason Reitman must be something good for him as, although in a smaller role than in the indie success Juno was, Bateman as Bingham’s boss gives the film drive.
Bateman acts as the driving force for the film and, although his screen time is short, he uses it effectively giving the plot that extra push it needs to keep the audience invested. Kudos Bateman, please do more like this.
One thing that really should have been mentioned by now is the actually firing Bingham and Keener do and that it provides a lot of comedy and drama to the film as a whole. Zach Galifianakis acts as Steve, an employee fired by Bingham and, although only on screen for minutes, his renditions of “How an Employee can react to Being Fired” are quite amusing. Tamala Jones also shows this in a blunter, colder fashion, showing audiences how some people really act to unemployment in a decidedly uncomfortable manner.
Yet it is acting veteran J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man trilogy, Juno, and Portal 2) gives the film more time with firing employees than any other. Keener realises the reality which Bingham faces on a daily basis and the whole host of issues arising from it, as well as her lack of real world experience when her academic mind is swiftly denounced by Simmons’ visibly distraught character. Simmons gives the recently unemployed a voice in how unemployment will affect them in real terms.
In the end though, this film does push the “Live Life with Those you Care About” message pretty hard, it feels as if it flows naturally, rather than getting preachy about the subject. It allows Bingham to be his ostracised self while moving the plot along while slowly questioning Bingham’s lifestyle rather than bringing abrupt changes every fifteen minutes.
I must say that, while this film did not capture my attention at the time, I’m glad BBC iPlayer reminded me of it as it was most certainly worth the time to watch it. It’s witty, charming and keeps you invested in the characters without making them to feel like caricatures.
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