As the anecdote goes, George Clooney took just one brisk read of the script, sat in one of the many bedrooms of his palatial villa on the tranquil shores of Lake Como, to say yes to Jason Reitman’s follow-up to hip, teen-pregnancy dramedy Juno. He could see it straightaway, the role of a lifetime. Or at least a role in his gifted hands that could be transformed into the role of his lifetime: this suave yet haunted jet-setter with a tincture of Cary Grant or perhaps George Clooney about him, intent on reaching a miraculous ten million air miles as he skips from city to city laying off the workforce on behalf of cowardly bosses. He’s a mobile downsizer, or ‘career transition counsellor’, thriving in the chaos of recession. Topical, huh?
Yes, of course, but not as polemic, but context — a gravitational pull anyone would wish to escape from. It’s worth mentioning the script, based on Walter Kirn’s novel, was six years old before going into production. Only once the shoot commenced did it take on such a cruel relevance. A consumerist fable with its synthetic dream of never-to-be-spent frequent-flyer miles, set against the bleak shadow of now.
But this all sounds far too heavy for a film so light. In Reitman’s care, still channelling the breezy, matter-of-fact perkiness of Juno, it is an emphatic statement that Hollywood can still make great movies; a celebration that stardom can be as thrilling a concept as 3-D or CG or mooncalf vampires.
Bingham has a system for life — he avoids it. He travels perfectly, flitting between meetings, sealed safe and selfish in business class. See how effortlessly he negotiates the hurdles of airport security. Hear his withering put-downs of the herds of clueless travellers. Yes, Up In The Air comes complete with a Clooney voice-over, one of modern cinema’s most beguiling pleasures. That wisdom-bestowing, aphoristic science-of-life stuff — just on the edge of droll — piloting us through Bingham’s handsome head. A philosophical voice track that crosses over into his motivational speeches: public demos of his ruthless, emotional impregnability. “We are not swans,” he chides a conventional hall part-filled with blank faces. “We are sharks.”
Two women will happen to Bingham in different ways. The first in what seems to be a traditional rom-com, is Vera Farmiga’s Alex. She proves his perfect opposite: the Hepburn to his sly-smiled Tracy, the female version of himself. She even wryly recognises the attraction: “Just think of me as you, but with a vagina.” Farmiga, who has a lived-in authenticity to her beauty, laps up Alex’s flighty ambiguities. Alex is loose on the airwaves too, and their first encounter is a duel of platinum reward cards — the jousting of battle scars from Jaws rewired for the age of hermetic travel. While Clooney gets the lines, the trajectory of the plot, the ravishing Farmiga has a range of subtle glances, ironic smiles and deft shrugs that suggest a world of emotion held sternly at bay.
It is not destiny, but scheduling that has drawn them together. Two people content to be casual. And love, the real grubby stuff of life, would only complicate things. You can see where this is going. Only you can’t. Not quite. Reitman keeps tweaking comfortable outcomes and throwing us off balance.
The other female is Natalie, a spiky greenhorn fresh in from business school with a computerised plan to downsize even the downsizers: a system of remote-control lay-offs via video. An indignant Bingham — confronting the grounding of his made-to-measure non-life — is forced to drag her around for his latest session of city-hopping redundancies. Thus, besides the rom-com, it’s an odd-couple flick: smug old-timer and mixed-up go-getter.
Anna Kendrick is the third of the film’s marvels. Natalie’s aiming for Bingham’s icy-calm, but can’t hold it in. Her swift, hilarious breakdown, including a splendid squall of unbidden tears in the midst of a departure hall, and Bingham’s allergic reaction supply the meat of the comedy. Reitman likes this bounce of opposites — Ellen Page ruffling Jennifer Garner’s stiff feathers in Juno — and their conversation has the zest of classic-era comedy.
Indeed, Billy Wilder would have loved its set-up, the barbs nestled amongst the folly of human foibles; Howard Hawks its complicated interplay between the sexes. To counter such glistening movieness, and sharpen its real-world subtext, Reitman interviewed 120 recently laid-off workers, sprinkling their candid words amongst the narrative — a Greek chorus of broken lives. The script is structured into city chapters, with these to-camera interviews slotted between, a shape as precise as the habits of the protagonist. As with Juno, there are contrivances, shortcuts to get us home on time. But they feel deliberate and confidently handled, part of that old-Hollywood style that courses beneath modern sheen.
Reitman also shoots with quiet power. Initially, it is cold and neat, all angular airport architecture and walls of icy glass, but as Bingham is unpeeled, so the director’s camera loosens up, switching to scruffy handhelds and grainier stock. There is plenty of aerial work, of course, gliding us through the sanctuary of the skies to peer godlike upon Midwestern cities more like burned-out circuit boards. In these strange, snowy centres of American torpor, where the recession has dug deepest, Bingham will do his thing. And the more we witness the sad ritual of dismissal, workers shorn of dignity and hope, the more we realise we’re getting the film all wrong.
This is one of the script’s brilliant tricks — to undermine our knee-jerk judgement of Bingham. We’ve got him pegged, this untouchable, steel-hearted hatchet man who will melt before the film’s out, but as he gently exposes the nature of his trade to his new sidekick, his understanding of grief and human panic reveal him as the most compassionate soul in the film. He is both executioner and therapist in one. And Clooney revels in the contradiction. Bingham isn’t emotionless — he’s just in control.
Much has and will be written on the close fit between Clooney and his charge: isolated, childless men, decent but unreachable, living their lives in the hushed unreality of airtight luxury. Everywhere and nowhere at once. Late on, Reitman changes tack for a chapter. Bingham, starting to soften, goes to his estranged sister’s (Melanie Lynskey) wedding, taking Alex as his date on a whim. Here, amid the touchstones of a forgotten childhood, he will prove unlikely saviour and the contact will pry him open. Without the lunatic twitches of some Method man, Clooney cracks the façade, and a mix of loneliness and hope pours out. He was right about this one — it has all the unguarded desperation of Michael Clayton, but is sexier, funnier and more knowing. He thrives off the film, and the film off his gift of a performance.
All the while Reitman, fast-tracking himself onto the A-list in a graceful swoop of excellence, is able to maintain that toughest of balances: the lightly profound, an unfussy, impeccably performed, romantic entertainment able to say something important about its times. Up In The Air is a rarity indeed, and should win Oscars for them all. One of which will look just dandy on the sideboard in Como.