Up in the Air (15)

3.00

Clooney proves a sleek high flier

Here is a film for the times. Up in the Air introduces us to Ryan Bingham, a corporate troubleshooter whose office is a moveable space between airport terminals, airport hotels and business-class seating high above the clouds. The tougher the economic climate, the more in demand Ryan has become, for his job is firing people whose bosses are too cowardly to pull the trigger themselves. He has perfected a whole spiel in delivering the bad news, and he can look his victims in the eye even as they rant, or plead, or curse, or cry. And the awful thing about this smooth assassin of hope is that he likes doing what he does – not the firing part, but the travelling, the perks and privileges of the frequent flyer, the protective cocoon that has crusted around his life of perpetual motion.

You would think him a dislikeable type, this Ryan Bingham, if you met him in life – for one thing, the only reason for meeting him would be so that he could fire you. But Up in the Air isn't life, it's a white-collar US tragicomedy, and Ryan is played by George Clooney, who makes himself very hard to dislike. True, there's a worrying air of complacency about him, and you might wonder at the state of a soul whose home is a poky impersonal apartment in Omaha that actually looks like one of the less ritzy hotel rooms he frequently stays in. When his boss (Jason Bateman) discloses a plan for a new mode of firing people – via a computer videolink, thus saving on airfares – he thinks Ryan will be pleased: "You get to come home," he explains. But Ryan doesn't want to come home, because there's nothing there for him: his life is up in the air, looking down on everyone.

The director Jason Reitman sets this up very cannily, sounding just the right note of hubris beneath Ryan's slickness. He has surprises in store, too, or at least what count for surprises in a mainstream Hollywood movie: there are two, arguably three, interestingly written women characters lying in wait for Clooney to play off. (Reitman's previous feature was Juno, so he's no stranger to the dramatic potential of a feisty female). The first of them is a pert young miss named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who will be accompanying Ryan on his next round of flights. Hers was the sacking-by-video-conference brainchild that he so objects to. It's not just that it will limit his flying – he has enough of a conscience to realise that the least you can do when downsizing somebody is meet them face to face. Natalie is the sort of go-getter whose life choices appear to have been organised by ruthless box-ticking. Of her last boyfriend she tells Ryan, "He really fit the bill". "The bill?" he replies, alarmed by such pragmatism in one so young.

Perhaps he recognises something of himself in her – after all, his own romantic liaisons have been shaped by his job. Lately his loins have been stirred by Alex (Vera Farmiga), another corporate wanderer who, like himself, doesn't appear to need anyone or anything. They quickly establish a mutual ground of interest, aside from sex: they are both "turned on by elite status", their wallets sleek with membership cards, prestige passes, concierge keys. Theirs is a world of insulated to-ing and fro-ing, and if they can arrange their schedules around a night on the road together, so much the better. Farmiga, who was good in The Departed, and even better as the mother of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is a terrific match for Clooney, as ravishing to the eye and possessed of the same sidelong amusement at the world. They do sauciness like Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep: "I'll bet it's huge," Alex says. "You have no idea," he replies. They're talking about his projected target as an air-miles accumulator, but you can tell she already has his measure.

The film, written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, is consistently entertaining, though it coasts through a long middle and towards the end threatens to take a nose-dive into sentimentality. A subplot involves Ryan surprising everyone, including himself, by showing up at his younger sister's wedding, though it's his older sister Kara (Amy Morton) whose weary air of defeat makes the deeper impression. It is not exactly a joyous reunion of the Bingham clan. "Basically you don't exist to us," Kara tells him, a line that sounds harsher than it is actually spoken, but Ryan still has to take it on the chin. A small chance to redeem himself arises when he (of all people) is tasked with persuading the panicked bridegroom not to scarper – the commitment-phobe winging it as a relationship counsellor. "Everyone needs a co-pilot," is Ryan's best advice, and it's a nice touch of the screenplay to show how even his language is enslaved to air travel.

The warm fuzziness of these scenes suggest that Ryan's next destination is a happy landing, but to its credit the film suddenly pulls away and delivers a bit of a shock. It is, you might say, a very unAmerican conclusion, though however much pathos it elicits there's still a sense that the real tragedy is going on elsewhere. More than a sense: Reitman bookends the film with montages of talking heads reacting to the news that they've been fired, and the rawness of their anguish persuades you that they could be actual victims of job loss – which indeed they are. Ryan Bingham has been knocked sideways, but there's still a job keeping him aloft. For those people hovering above the economy's trap door the view must have seemed rather more precipitous.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones