Sunday, March 14, 2010

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

The devastatingly sexy Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air

Angel of death

Jason Reitman's adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel Up in the Air (2009) is pretty good, considering that it's a comedy about massive corporate layoffs--at first glance a monumentally unfunny subject.

Reitman's film follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a career transition counselor (read: hired gun) who flies from city to city, sitting down with various employees of various corporations and informing them, in the gentlest manner possible, that they are fired, briefly listening to their angry or hurt response, then presenting them with a slim severance package folder.

No--when you think about it, not really ripe material for a comedy, much less a sophisticated one about human behavior in times of financial crisis.

Actually, the financial crisis is given the serious treatment; the comedy comes mainly from the film's satiric portrait of Bingham who at one point succinctly says of himself: “We are not swans. We're sharks.” The film's tone takes its cue from Reitman's visual choices, especially in giving the airport terminals and planes and rental cars and parking lots--that entire culture of transition that is Bingham's true habitat--the antiseptic sheen and silence of a world not quite on the same level as our own.

That's probably Reitman's finest achievement in this picture, that world. Bingham in Kirn's book dubs it “Airworld,” which he describes as “a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency -- the token economy of airline bonus miles that I've come to value more than dollars.” His stated goal in the novel is to earn an unprecedented one million of those miles; the film's unstated objective is to examine that goal, and its true worth.

For all that, Reitman does make that world look handsome. Planes take to the air with mesmerizing ease, against a sky of deep orange or cool gray or pure blue; the terminal hubs are impeccably cleaned and carpeted and air-conditioned; the cafes and magazine stores offer the same comforting frappes and cappuccinos and issues of Vogue, People, USA Today. Reitman only needs to tweak the scenario a little here and there to update it--granting Bingham a wi-fi laptop, upping his ante from a million to ten million bonus air miles.

Bingham moves through this world, sharklike, his wheeled suitcase like a chihuahua on short leash following him obediently down escalators and up hotel elevators, smoothly cornering at hallways with the slightest of rubberized squeals. He flips out his frequent flyer card with the dexterity of a practiced prestidigitator, and is at least on nodding acquaintance with the stewardesses and ground staff.

All of which makes for a marked contrast with what he does on the ground. On the ground he's like an angel, descended from a higher world to deliver grim news. When he strides through a financially stricken corporate office you know he doesn't belong there--the confidence and energy marks him as different. When he listens to an employee he's just informed has been fired he has the demeanor of an undertaker, listening with discreet sympathy, giving the aggrieved his total and undivided attention.

Some of these casualties are actors (J.K. Simmons, very fine in a tiny role); some are real casualties from St. Louis and Detroit, who have been laid off and were asked to respond the way they might have if they had a few minutes to rehearse. They sit across from Bingham and growl, snort, wheeze, bark; their behavior is unusually free of mannerisms. Reitman gives them their moment in the sun, their time in the spotlight; he turns the movie screen into a privileged moment, an intimate diary recording the largely improvised anger and frustration of men and women who after decades of hard work suddenly finds themselves unwanted--perhaps not Reitman's finest moments (the idea exudes just the faintest whiff of exploitation), but easily some of my favorite.

Kirn's novel is basically an encyclopedic collection of observations about 'Airworld' with the suspenseful gimmick of a deadline thrown in (Bingham has to amass his millionth mile before his boss discovers his resignation letter). Reitman (with the help of co-writer Sheldon Turner) adds a different kind of tension by providing Bingham with a comic foil--Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who picks up Bingham's job and takes it to its logical hi-tech conclusion: if you can farm out the unpleasant task of firing your employees to a contractor, why not let said contractor farm out the task of actually informing said employees to a laptop, through a telecommunication video link? Bingham sputters all kinds of excuses, the most persuasive being that you lose that personal touch (which carries his argument only up to a point--judging from Bingham's own smooth, soothing style, one can hardly discern anything personal about his method either); Reitman and Turner put Keener on a tryout tour with Bingham, to test her idea on the field.

To portray Kirn's angel of doom Reitman could hardly have done better than George Clooney. He looks every bit as serene and sterilized as the world he belongs to--as if he had just stepped down from an escalator, deigned to come share his presence amongst us, and spread the news that “this is not the end.” He meets his match in Alex (the devastatingly sexy Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler. If Keener is meant to shake Bingham's complacency, Alex is meant to mirror Bingham--to play his game of gathering no moss and (as it turns out) one-up him in the process. Not bad at all, as I noted earlier, and it adds to the novel's premise some of the desperate urgency of the times--possibly why it's been such a hit to both audiences and critics. If it misses being great, that's probably because Kirn and Reitman's shared concept for the picture eschews the stink of blood, stays away from any sense of true desperation--the film is a victim of its own stylish detachment. 

First published in Businessworld 3.5.10

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