Up in the Air (2009)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I’ve now worked in the public sector for 14 consecutive years. I remember well enough the reasons for doing so. Beforehand, I had a job with some petrochemical giant, one incidentally whose name you can’t write without including the word ‘hell’, and whilst there was much of it that I liked, the corporate culture was at distinct odds with what I wanted from my working life. It became clear that face fitting was easily as important as one’s employment record, which sat ill with me. I recall a colleague being told that he was due for promotion, but one of the conditions of his step up was that he had to sever all ties with another employee who just wasn’t liked by the management. He did it as well.

Since leaving, I probably haven’t earned as much as I could. I’ve done some boring, boring jobs and felt shackled in various ways, but then there’s things like the steady wage, the pension (far from gilt-edged, Daily Mail readers, but it’s better than anything I might expect to get otherwise) and the security. With a mortgage, family, commitments, etc, the knowledge that I’m not going to have ‘that’ call to the manager’s office, perhaps without any prior notice, matters. I’m never going to be faced with Ryan Bingham, thank goodness.

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Bingham, whose job is basically to jet around American cities and fire people. Companies get him to do their dirty work because they don’t want to do it themselves, and Bingham’s good at it. He can ease his way through sacking after sacking, each one smoothly executed because he has so few commitments of his own that he doesn’t really have to empathise with people’s sob stories about keeping up the house payments, feeding the family, etc. Bingham’s only real ambition is to work his way into as many courtesy services and elite memberships as humanly possible. He’s the man who strolls straight to the front of an empty baggage check at the airport whilst you’re stuck in an endless queue. His dream is to score ten million air miles, which means continuing to do what he’s doing.

But this ‘idyll’ is threatened by the new ideas presented to his company by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young Cornell Business graduate who suggests firing people over an internet feed, meaning not having to leave the office to do the job. With the economic climate never better for the business of letting people go, Natalie’s proposal removes the human touch of face to face discussion for the production line of sackings by Skype. It also impinges on the very things Bingham values about his job, not to mention the relationship he’s developing with fellow frequent flier Alex (Vera Farmiga). She’s the same as him. They meet in a bar and compare corporate hospitality cards. Their friendship is based on sex in hotel rooms, agreed in advance via comparing itineraries and working out when they’re staying in close proximity.

The plot revolves around Bingham taking Natalie off on a job of work schedule, the pair sharing the firings across various cities. Gradually, the work takes its toll on her. Telling people they’re dismissed to their faces hits Natalie hard. She’s from the tweeting culture, after all, where everything’s done remotely. Having to watch people break down, get angry or tell her they’re going to throw themselves off a bridge doesn’t meet with her expectations of the job. It turns out that she’s only there to begin with because she’s gone to where her boyfriend is, and then he dumps her. This makes Bingham consider his own priorities – his transitory lifestyle, his minimal contact with family and the questions over where he’s going with Alex.

Director Jason Reitman (who also produced the film alongside father, Ivan) keeps things ticking over nicely, never taking obvious avenues in the course of the action and going for some neat choices in photography. Those aerial shots of Americana – especially the postcard frames that pop up over the credits – are quite beautiful, and Reitman ensures his characters appear to move organically through the tale, not overly directing them so it feels like the camera’s just following them about their business. As for Clooney, it’s a tailor-made role, the usual shades of Cary Grant updated for the twenty-first century, only he knows when to let the emotion crack open his austere presence.

The real plus is the film’s non-committal ending, the possibility that Bingham could be doing the same thing for years and years. Only by the close, the job’s become a trap rather than the thing he loves, and it would be lovely to picture him firing himself in the end. Or that bloke from the company I used to work for…

Up in the Air: ***

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5 Replies to “Up in the Air (2009)”

  1. I remember seeing this in the cinema when it was released and seemed to be earning lots of praise – there was even some Oscar buzz surrounding it to IIRC. Frankly, I wasn’t all that impressed by it. It felt episodic and there was, for me at least, a dry, cold feel to it all – a bit like an airport departure lounge I guess.

    The performances were fine but I walked away feeling dissatisfied.

  2. In one of the few examples of this ever happening, I’m going to completely disagree with Colin (bound to happen at least once eventually) – I really liked this a lot when it came out for its wry tone and very well-judged performances. Along with MICHAEL CLAYTON, this is probably my favourite performance from Clooney – I also think the emotional thump at the end of the film really works. I think i know why some people didn’t respond to the film but it seemed to me that it was taking an oblique and creative look at the economic tragedy that surrounds us right now but also had a real beating heart at its centre.

    1. I think my view on this one is likely the minority position. I don’t deny it’s well made, or suggest that it’s a “bad” film. Somehow it didn’t work for me, just didn’t click, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. Maybe it was the basic storyline, the essentially hollow relationships, the mood. Whatever, I came away with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

      As for my favourite Clooney performance, I’m generally ambivalent about a lot of his work, but I thought The American was excellent.

      1. I haven;t seen it since it came out at the cinema but my feeling at the time was that I really liked the humour and intimacy of the scenes between Clooney and Farmiga, especially that dialogue with Kendrick in which they are made to feel wiser, yes, but also older, which is just unusual in Hollywood movies these days. And that in the end I responded to her naivete but didn’t completely give up on Clooney, though obviously there is a darkness there, that sense that he is in fact an intelligent and sensitive man who had chosen to close that part of himself off. When ti came out it got a lot of positive press though it didn’t quite win everyone over and there were a lot of negative criticisms too. I probably should watch it again before wading in too deeply …

  3. Thanks both. Colin – the ‘dry, cold’ feeling you mention is something that put me off watching it for some time. It had all the makings of a well acted slowie that was going for Oscar glory. I’m happy to report that I found the actual film quite different and I’m more with Sergio in enjoying its light touch and, for me, messages that were subtly delivered rather than shoved down our throats.

    Clooney’s ace in it as well. I love the way he lets the home life he’s clearly tried to escape from slowly creep back in, mainly thanks to his relationship with Alex and what he wants from it, which makes the kick in the teeth he gets that bit more powerful.

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