Michael Moore’s latest film Capitalism: A Love Story, released next month, is an angry indictment of the American economic system as corrupt, moribund and routinely responsible for destroying the lives of ordinary people. It’s a passionate, compelling critique – but it’s not nearly as trenchant, nor as fun, as the glossy new comedy Up In The Air.
Jason Reitman’s follow-up to Juno has been tipped as a shoo-in for abundant honours in the awards season, and you can see why – it manages to be so many films at once. It’s a lifestyle satire, a stylish grown-up rom-com, a sleek George Clooney vehicle. But Up In The Air is also a film with a lot to say about the western world today, and the state-of-soul of those who inhabit it.
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man hired out to companies to fly around America doing the dirty job that managers prefer not to – he fires people. His job is to walk into offices and smoothly announce to total strangers – working stiffs in Tulsa, Wichita, Des Moines – that they’ve lost their jobs. He reads them a pre-scripted bit of rhetoric to ease the blow, to persuade them that this is not a setback but an opportunity – then he leaves, and what happens to the sacked after that is not his concern. Meanwhile, Bingham lives the high life in an endless circuit of luxury hotels and VIP lounges, sauntering to the front of every queue with a flash of this or that privilege card. Permanent transit is the life he loves, whereas his rarely-occupied “home” is a drab flat-pack of an apartment in Omaha. Bingham has no real life in the terrestrial sense: modern existential man, he is the life he leads, the air miles he accumulates.
He sidelines as a motivational speaker, with a talk, “What’s In Your Backpack?”, that expounds a radical philosophy of travelling light, jettisoning anything that can anchor you to earth – including family and attachments. Bingham would come across as a monster if he weren’t played by George Clooney. The star’s well-brushed charm makes Bingham the epitome of the man in the lifestyle ads, so we’re all the more eager to see that surface chipped away by satirical scrutiny.
Clooney has often sent himself up too broadly, but here his comic precision flourishes because he plays it absolutely straight. He gives his character a smugly vulnerable humanity, and the delight that Bingham takes in his privilege is almost touchingly childish. When he meets a kindred spirit, Alex (Vera Farmiga), the two of them instantly click, giggling with erotic glee as they compare VIP cards. What gets her into bed, essentially, is his American Airlines Concierge Key: this is a true meeting of modern alpha male and female. After sex, they leap to their laptops to see when their schedules will permit another roll between hotel sheets. Bingham’s surface slickness makes him present-day kin to Don Draper, the advertising anti-hero of Mad Men, but while the likes of Draper could plausibly claim to be creating American culture, Bingham produces nothing.He’s not the master of the system that he thinks he is, but a slave, a superconsumer addicted to the surface-deep – and already anachronistic – glamour of air travel.
In contrast, Reitman provides glimpses of the earthbound victims of the economic crash that Bingham’s work thrives on. Several of the aggrieved sackees shown in montages are real people talking about their experiences of job loss (they are interspersed with character actors including JK Simmons and Zach Galifianakis): we’re seeing human beings, involved in complex responsible lives, whereas the perennially detached Bingham increasingly resembles a weightless walking spectre. But even he must eventually feel the crunch, which comes in the form of eager graduate Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who's devised a way to economise by keeping Bingham's ilk off the road: a system for firing people by video screen.
Enraged by this threat to his lifestyle, Bingham engages the newcomer in a prickly bout of combative role play – one of the film's choicest scenes – before their boss (a serpentine Jason Bateman) sends them on the road together.
Also pulling a reluctant Bingham to earth is his sister's wedding, which he attends with Alex as his escort – and the film momentarily looks set for the traditional rom-com route to humanising its protagonist. But despite the tenderness that gradually suffuses the film, Up In The Air never loses its bite. Reitman concludes with a remorseless sting, possibly the bleakest ending ever in a mainstream American comedy, but an absolutely satisfying one.
The acting is terrific, not least from Kendrick who makes a chilling entrance with her metallic, affectless delivery. She's a terrific foil to Clooney and Farmiga, who cook up a formidable sexual chemistry as two people who fall in lust, largely because they confirm each other's self-image: two successful adults horribly complicit in their shared sense of superiority. Farmiga's unusual face, sensually heavy and mask-like, proves a fabulously subtle instrument, its low readability brilliantly feeding into the story's pay-off.
Shot by Eric Steelberg, the film is superbly staged, depicting Bingham's universe (and by extension, the entire USA) as a succession of antiseptic grey offices and warmly burnished VIP lounges, a vast membrane of smoothness that disguises the human carnage as the economy crumbles.
Adapting Walter Kirn's novel, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner have crafted a blithe, brittle comedy that also presents an acerbic depiction of the economics of dehumanisation.
Not only is this a rare Hollywood production that offers as much substance and panache as the cream of current US TV, I'd go further and say its cynical wit almost places it in the Billy Wilder bracket: Up In The Air is as eloquent about today's executive culture as The Apartment was about that of 1960. It is a brutal, desolate film – but also a superb existential rom-com, and the most entertaining lesson in contemporary socio-economics that you could hope for.