There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from being the first audience on the entire planet to see a movie, but it inevitably means far less when we’re talking about a Jason Reitman production. After all, this is the same man who set Juno loose upon an unsuspecting world, though my negative review appears to be one of only a handful to be found. Telluride’s faithful are especially enamored with it, and if any one statement dominated the endless queues of the weekend’s events, it was, “I liked it, but it was no Juno.” You are correct, madam or sir, and that’s about the best bit of news concerning this decidedly commercial enterprise. Up in the Air is, at bottom, a creature of mainstream moviemaking, and while limiting in terms of payoff, I’m here to say that it’s not all bad. In fact, I pretty much enjoyed the thing, much to my surprise. Of course, as I expected to loathe its very existence, modest entertainment was more than I had any right to expect. George Clooney tones down the smugness for once, and is all the better for it, and the story, while too redemptive by half, manages to traffic in adult situations and topical relevance with precious little by way of, well, preciousness. Reitman would do right to stay away from Diablo Cody from here on out.
Clooney portrays Ryan Bingham, a corporate hatchet man of more recent vintage; the anti-headhunter who visits downsizing companies across the country to lay off the unsuspecting with what he believes is tact and sympathy. Essentially, he stands in for gutless managers and CEOs who can’t do their own dirty work. The visits are scripted down to the letter, and are so sterile (they involve handbooks on coping with the post-layoff depression, for god’s sake) that they practically run themselves. But Clooney is proud of his work, as he provides a human face to a very inhuman moment in the lives of so many. Along with that central thrust are two side stories: Clooney’s relentless pursuit of his ten-millionth frequent flier mile, and the introduction of a corporate upstart who threatens to take the business into a new age of “video conferencing,” which pretty much entails eliminating all the travel to fire people via the internet. With that, the story is off and running, though it won’t be inviting comparisons with Bergman anytime soon.
We also know that Clooney’s “go it alone” philosophy will be challenged by a fellow traveler who becomes more than a port in the storm, and that her “real life” will present new obstacles, etc. Also, no prizes for guessing that his motivational speeches, used primarily to supplement his income (as well as provide an excuse to keep him on the road even more), will be thrown into disarray by this unexpected attachment, and if you were to assume that a third-act seminar will be interrupted by the standard “moment of clarity” (which by necessity must include leaving the podium and making a mad dash to the airport), you would not be going out too far on the proverbial limb. Again, all pretty much by the book. But it’s well-made, engaging, and for once, despite some definite compromises, the lead character stays nestled in his self-imposed cocoon during the closing credits. Sure, he craves connection, but he’s not really cut out for the daily grind of holding down the homefront. A small victory, perhaps, but enough to warrant a recommendation.