More than a century has passed since the Wright Brothers first took off from Kitty Hawk, but flying still retains some of its romantic appeal. Nothing represents freedom better than defying gravity, hurtling hundreds of miles per hour across the sky. The vistas turn towns into toys as you drift through those polymorphous clouds. Life below is an abstract; people are too small to see, so entire cities become depopulated dollhouses. Racking up enough frequent-flyer miles can be like working in the movies; when you live in the realm of fantasy, you’re the envy of those strapped to reality. A refugee from being grounded can leave his commitments—both the drudgeries and securities of day-to-day experience—up in the air. Who’d have thought that so many businessmen inhabit a dreamer’s paradise?
Well, Jason Reitman—who directed Up in the Air, adapted from the Walter Kirn novel by Reitman and Sheldon Turner—for one. His fellow traveler, George Clooney, plays the itinerant, Ryan Bingham, who darts from airport to airport 300 days a year. His job is to fire strangers from their jobs—he’s like a shiny, polished Magnum brandished by cowardly bosses. (Guns don’t kill people…) A part-time motivational speaker who preaches the virtues of traveling light, Bingham has the salt-and-pepper charm that makes the laid-off feel gently tapped into unemployment rather than thrown face first. Clooney—our closest equivalent to Cary Grant—resembles the lacquered gold-club saloons Bingham frequents. He looks like a man who’s descended from the heavens; he’s as sleek as the glossy pamphlets he distributes. The rough edges of life on the ground would have tarnished him, but the elevated air has been his botox. And yet the victims of his vocation form the toes of his crows’ feet.
Up in the Air is the third, and best, of Reitman’s features. His métier is making plastic people into flesh; but, in the past, his results have been closer to Dr. Frankenstein’s than Pygmalion’s. Juno was supposedly about a sensitive girl who hid her emotions; in reality, it presented a sitcom abhorrence weaned on Youtube and T.V. commercials. She was a Madison Avenue suit shilling Williamsburg plaids. The 2007 movie—for which the writer was probably more responsible than Reitman—had the same music-to-cut-yourself-to soundtrack as Up in the Air, but Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking (2005) seems more closely related to the new release. I can think of few movies that so avidly accepted smugness and half-baked ideas as satire and common sense, but Thank You’s hero—a tobacco lobbyist—was another corporate crank who discovered the destructive shallowness of his trade.
Up in the Air is no Thank You. Here, Reitman does not grandstand about Bingham’s morally questionable practice in a morally questionable system; but the director also shirks misstated questions and simplistic answers. (Part of the problem with Thank You may have been transcription; I blame Reitman, rather than Christopher Buckley, the writer, because the rhetoric seemed cherry-picked and pitted.) His style is still slick, but it’s sensitive now, too. Rather than hiring professional actors to play the laid off, the production team interviewed real victims of the recession, who were told they were participating in a documentary. In tone and subject matter, the film is indebted to the work of Alexander Payne, particularly About Schmidt and Sideways; but Up in the Air isn’t quite as clever or incisive—or open—perhaps because Reitman’s schmucks are corporate winners, whereas Payne’s are self-condemned losers. Reitman values pathos over perception. Working with a great subject, he’s done a creditable job, but the outcome is ultimately conventional: a high-flying rom-com with a figurative crash landing.