November 29, 2009
Article taken from The New Yorkers.
For those of us who look to the skies, two major releases compel attention. They make the perfect couple. One is “Up in the Air,” the new film from Jason Reitman, who made “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno.” The other is “Come Fly with Me,” which has been reissued on vinyl by Capitol, fifty-one years after its first appearance, in the unpolluted mono sound that God—or Frank Sinatra—intended. The half-century that is bracketed by the album and the film has witnessed both the expansion and the degradation of a dream. The tilt of Sinatra’s hat, on the cover of the LP, and the position of his hands (one lightly holding a woman’s, the other motioning with jerked thumb, as if a trip to Capri were as swift and painless as hitching a ride) inform us that, thanks to airplanes, the world is now his, and ours, for the asking. Whereas the face of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), in the final moments of “Up in the Air,” as he stares at an airport departures board, bears the lagged blankness of someone who has long since forgotten what to ask for.
“To know me is to fly with me,” Bingham says in an early voice-over, choosing his words, as ever, to sound like an advertising campaign. My guess would be that he has read so many in-flight magazines over the years (we never see him with a book) that his prose rhythms have adapted accordingly, just as his digestion is attuned to hotel menus and complimentary drinks. Last year, he says, three hundred and twenty-two days were spent travelling, leaving “forty-three miserable days at home,” in Omaha. Now and then, we see his apartment, and it’s just like a hotel suite, minus the personal warmth—no room service, no express checkout, not even a chocolate on the pillow. Bingham is Homo peripateticus, seeing neither purpose nor profit in being at rest. “The slower we move, the faster we die,” he says to a business gathering. “We are not swans. We’re sharks.”
It makes sense, then, that this particular shark is engaged in daily kills. Bingham is part of a company, run by the conscience-free Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that does the dirty work for the heads of other firms who lack the guts, or the heart, to do it themselves: it fires their employees. Bingham is unparalleled at this; he could land in London at dawn, dethrone the Queen, explain the terms of her severance package, and be out of there before breakfast. “Up in the Air” was shot in the first months of this year: “the worst time,” as Gregory tells his staff, adding modestly, “This is our moment.” His joy at the prospect of depression is a fearsome thing, and Reitman, to his credit, does not stint on the facts. Bingham may thrive on perks and upgrades, but the grit of his job means standing around in slush-laden parking lots, under gray-white skies, and marching into offices where the workers go quiet and hunched at the sight of him, as if he were an exorcist, or a cop. Indeed, the film begins with a sequence of talking heads—the faces and expostulations of the newly sacked, as they respond to the life-draining news. If you’re wondering why they seem so artless and sincere in their dismay, that’s because they are; far from being Hollywood bit players, these are real victims of job loss, found in St. Louis and Detroit.
For all that, the film is a hybrid. Its backdrop is despair, but the foreground action has the silvery zest of a comedy. The traditional comic task of the American female has been to shock the male monomaniac into seeing how rich and multitudinous his bone-dry life could be. That was what Katharine Hepburn did to the ossified Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby.” What’s fresh and rousing about “Up in the Air” is that, when Bingham meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), it’s more like Cary Grant bumping into his twin soul. They get talking in a hotel bar—where else?—and, before long, they are comparing the contents of their wallets. Not money, which is soiled stuff (on reflection, you realize how cashless the movie is), but credit cards, room keys, memberships, privileges, and points. “I’ll bet it’s huge,” Alex says. “You have no idea,” Bingham replies. He means his tally of air miles, of course, or rather his goal as a miles collector: ten million. He sleeps with Alex that night, but he still can’t divulge the magic number. A fellow has to have some secrets.
We never discover what Alex does, except that she’s a fellow-shark. There’s a wonderful image, postcoitus, when they sit at their laptops and find a common gap in their schedules for the next encounter; filmed from the side, each becomes a mirror of the other. At no point does technology recede; from separate cities, they compensate with phone sex—or, rather, with text sex, though neither of them actually bothers with self-pleasure. Fingers are for buttons. It’s on her cell phone, naturally, that Alex calls Bingham and confides, “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about. Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” Is that a threat, a fantasy made flesh, or the only way in which warmer feelings can register between these cool, ungrounded spirits? Whatever the case, Alex is the role that Vera Farmiga has been waiting for, because she has the inestimable gift, hard to find these days, of being able to ice over and then thaw, in a matter of seconds. I have been a devotee since “The Departed,” which she stole from Scorsese’s overblown gangsters; and the late Anthony Minghella, who shared my adulation, used “Breaking and Entering” to bring out her worldly, playful toughness, with a hint of wounds beneath. Here, against Clooney’s Bingham, she wields her wits like knives, but there’s such grace in the wielding, and she makes so free with her desires, that you can feel him—and the audience—yearning to know more. And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, for a man who laughs at love.
More unsettling news: Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has to be strung along on his next roster of flights. She has joined the company with a plan to transform the dolorous act of termination into an iChat. Rather than travel to another town and fire people, you could stay in one spot and use videoconferencing screens. Bingham is appalled, on two grounds: first, his footloose habits would have to stop, and, second, he does, despite everything, retain some principles—the least you can offer, when you’re destroying a human being, is to do it face to face. This is clever plotting; it’s career-based, but it also allows Reitman to double the romantic pressure, since our hero now has twice as many reasons to inspect his prejudices and emerge from the safety of his shell. That’s why a touch of hokeyness intrudes, by necessity, in the later stages, as he decides to attend the wedding of his sister (Melanie Lynskey), taking Alex as his unexpected date. We can sense his emotions—his private economy—starting to rise out of recession.
Viewers must learn for themselves what happens next. Let’s just say that the tension between the bleak and the blithe, the prime source of this movie’s strength, is sustained by Reitman to the end. If anything, I would have tugged harder on the bleakness—jettisoned Rolfe Kent’s jaunty score, with its pizzicati and its busy drumming, in favor of something more austere. When it comes to airport movies, the spectrum runs from Chris Marker’s “La Jetée,” in which a fatality and the recollection of a woman’s face are all that is preserved, in frozen images, of a scene at Orly, where Jacques Tati later set some of “Playtime”; through the ruefulness of “The Terminal,” an oddly sedentary project for a director as kinetic as Spielberg; and so to the sugared reassurance of “Love Actually,” in which Hugh Grant solemnly announces that, at places like Heathrow, “love actually is all around.” Only someone who is regularly fast-tracked through first class, or has never waited five hours with kids and luggage, could write so glutinous a line, and “Up in the Air” should be read as a rebuke to wishful thinking. Airports are the seedbed for all that is most alien, angering, and atomized in our twenty-first-century days, and there are times, in this film, when Clooney’s eyes appear to glaze and say, Come die with me.
And yet he is George Clooney. The suits that Bingham wears may be a little cheap, but the actor’s fondness for well-cut irony is intact, and, having divided his screen time among cranky stiffs (“Burn After Reading,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats”), troubled defenders of honor (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana”), and gossamer smoothies (anything with “Ocean” in the title), he now has his first opportunity to shuffle the three together. Bingham is both wise guy and doofus, a player so expert at the rules of the game (always stand behind Asians at airport security, he tells Natalie, because they wear slip-on shoes) that he doesn’t notice, until too late, that the game has hollowed him out. “We are here to make limbo tolerable,” he says of his profession, though his is the genuine purgatory. Like Cary Grant, he looks down to one side and smiles whenever he is lost in thought—a hopelessly endearing tic. But those thoughts are up in the clouds.