Film review – Up in the Air (2009)

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney)

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) adores the world of airports, chain hotels and loyalty cards. His life as a motivational speaker and downsizing man-for-hire keeps him travelling around America enjoying his status as a privileged business flier. Charming, slick and truly happy with his unencumbered lifestyle, which is free of physical and emotional baggage, Bingham revels in his life “on the road”. Preferring to work on his frequent flier miles collection rather than engaging with people Bingham is less than impressed when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) lumps him with young up-and-comer efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick from the Twilight films). If Tyler Durden in Fight Club represented a primal force that at the end of the 1990s wanted to break free of the commodity culture, Bingham represents the tamed desire, which ten years later, wants to embrace the superficial security and comforts of that culture.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga)

Up in the Air is the third feature by writer/director Jason Reitman and it has a lot more in common with his 2005 corporate comedy Thank You for Smoking, which Reitman also wrote, than it does with his 2007 teen pregnancy comedy Juno. As with Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air features a charismatic anti-hero lead character who in any other film would be the bad guy. Reitman and Clooney do an extremely good job at endearing Bingham to the audience and making us understand why he loves his life so much. We should feel either pity or contempt at his shallow existence but in fact we instead start to become seduced by it especially when he hooks up with Alex Goran (played marvellously by Vera Farmiga from Orphan and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) who is his female counterpart. For the most part Up in the Air is a breezy comedy that will appeal to anybody who has ever had to do extensive travel for work or attend corporate conferences.

Unfortunately Up in the Air does lose its bite in the third act and ends up lacking the wicked edge of Thank You for Smoking. Reitman drives the film towards a disappointingly conventional epiphany and then comeuppance sequence of events that detracts from the film as a whole. Up in the Air still resolves smartly and genuinely with a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion but goes for a safe middle ground. Reitman’s film is far from being a masterpiece but he has succeeded in making Up in the Air very much a film of its time.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. I’m right with you. There seems to be something of a backlash happening against this film and I think it’s appropriate considering all of the hype, but I still think it’s an example of a good Hollywood picture in the classical tradition. Nothing earth shattering, nothing avant-garde, just straight ahead, solid movie making. And with some terrific performances.

  2. Hi Sam

    I know exactly what you are saying and I find it increasingly peculiar that more and more people are incapable of finding any middle ground when it comes to discussing films. No, Up in the Air is not an amazing film but it is a very good one and extremely competently made. Actually, I don’t mind so much if people do want to gush over it as good on them for discovering so much about it to like. But just because a film doesn’t live up to its unrealistic hype, it isn’t therefore a bad film.

    Anyway, well said!

  3. Thomas,
    As I matter of fact, I just had another look at the second half of the film. My original feelings about it stand; the picture played well with genre conventions, has a couple of memorable performances, and contains more grown-up dialogue than we’ve come to expect of mainstream Hollywood cinema. That’s important to remember, I think. Considering the film’s commercial origins only gives one more respect for it.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It gave me a similar feeling as Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums and those kinds of films.

    Having seen it before all the marketing and media hype, I went in with no expectations other than to be entertained by George Clooney – And that he did, as always.

  5. Okay, I’m coming late to the debate on this film but having only seen it recently, I just had to comment

    If you haven’t seen it I may venture close to SPOILER territory, so be wary….

    I had a mixed reaction. I loved certain scenes and the milieu it presented – the down-sizing angle and the world of the professional traveller/status junkie made for a beguiling opening. And Natalie with all her high-achieving neurosis is just so perfectly written and realised.

    But as the second act progressed, it felt like things turned messy….

    While spouting his ‘non-attachment’ theory to his young charge, Ryan does the opposite. Which is fine, but we need to see the internal conflict that besets the character as he begins to question his own approach to life. We get none of that until much later. This indicates Ryan is too blind to realise he’s acting counter to his own beliefs so, for my money, he just ends up looking thick. Nothing else in the characterisation says this guy is a dummy or lives a life unexamined, so this huge blind-spot in his own behaviour struck a bum-note with me.

    From a plotting point of view there’s really nothing wrong with this sequence of events, it’s just that we need to travel with the protagonist more and see his conflict as the universe conspires to tell him that his dearly held beliefs are flawed. We need that scene (far earlier than we get it) where Ryan is confused and vulnerable, but all we seem to get is George’s suave confidence.

    I wonder if, in striving to avoid serving up a stock-standard redemption plot, the director got a little lost. All the genre conventions are all there – they just don’t come at the right time for it to make sense…

    And the ‘big surpirse’ in the third act just felt like a cheat to me. It felt imposed; nothing in the performance of Alex indicated that reality. For big reveals like that to work, I need to have that, ‘oh, now I see it’ reaction – where you’re forced to re-interpret what you’ve seen up until then and for that new reality to make sense. Given what we see up to that point, IMO, it doesn’t work.

    So – I’ve rambled, sorry, and I do stress that I really like elements of this film – Clooney’s a charisma machine and the sizzle between him and Farmiga is wonderful. But I think it’s drawing a long-bow to call this a well-made film – plot issues and some directorial choices undermine what could have been a much more powerful and involving story.

    Just discovered the site and love it, btw!

  6. Thanks stu!

    Thanks also for you comments and I tend to agree with you. As you say, there is much to like and admire about Up in the Air but I agree that the third act contains too many aspects that just don’t work as well as they could and you’ve nicely expressed why.


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