'Up in the Air' Is First-Class Comedy
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Both of Jason Reitman's previous films ("Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno") were comic charmers with a bracingly caustic clarity about the human condition. Now comes "Up in the Air," light years ahead in mining major funny from the ways folks find and lose love, ethics, work -- all the stuff that sustains our sense of self and gives life meaning. Terrifically smart, sexy, with an undertone of sadness, "Air" checks out the kind of philosophical plane the Flying Dutchman (if he were George Clooney) might choose for the long, bumpy flight through life.
Reitman's nimble comedy doesn't achieve the sublimity of the Coens' "A Serious Man," but it goes a long way to renewing our faith that movies can tackle grown-up comedy resonant with real-life dilemmas and tragedy, often beyond our ability to grasp or control.
From the start, "Air" unabashedly announces its existential bent: The first line tossed off by protagonist Ryan Bingham is, "Who the f--- am I?" Why, he's George Clooney, of course, a good-looking stud who exudes charm and sincerity as easily as he breathes oxygen; such attractiveness always makes you feel a little greedy, if you jones for gravitas to boot. A movie star gifted with and sometimes limited by a superabundance of Peter Pan panache and Cary Grant charisma, Clooney plays the movie's urbane vagabond to perfection, turning in one of his finest performances.
Bingham flies 322 days out of the year, "parachuting" into cities all over the country to fire employees, a career transitional counselor doing the dirty deed bosses can't stomach. An often blackly funny montage of workers' responses to loss (of job, money, professional identity and respect) underscores the painful American reality of 10 percent unemployment. Ironically, these brief exit interviews represent the only emotional connections Bingham makes in his ongoing flight from earthbound concerns. His clients may be one-night stands, but he tries to imbue their brief encounter with "dignity."
Dude loves his job, flying in luxurious solitude from one interchangeable airport to another, enjoying the perks ("systematized friendly touches") of a high-mileage traveler. He's like that mythical bird that rides the air all its life, landing only to die. "To know me is to fly with me," quips Ryan, at home in business class, happy to avoid the heavy luggage of love, marriage, children; a single carry-on suits him just fine.
What's this bird's idea of heaven? To hit the 10-million-mile mark, earning him his moniker on the side of a plane (an aerial tombstone?) and the chance to meet legendary pilot Maynard Finch (gotta love that name). In his brief turn as Finch, Sam Elliott shines, his pure-white handlebar mustache and gravelly voice suggesting a ruggedly handsome St. Peter welcoming frequent fliers into a wonderful life above the clouds.
Bingham's vocational itinerary uncannily echoes a young Marine's in another current release, Oren Moverman's "The Messenger." In that hard-hitting indie, a shell-shocked soldier (Ben Foster, burning up the screen) just back from Iraq gets assigned the lacerating job of knocking on the doors of dads and moms and wives to announce the death of a beloved warrior. In a can't-turn-your-eyes-away sequence that parallels the montage of job loss in "Air," we witness ordinary folk cope with the emotional IED that has just exploded their hearts. But unlike the bearer of bad news in "Air," the broken Marine yearns for shelter, genuine emotional connection, rather than a quick takeoff on the next connecting flight.
But it would never occur to Bingham to put down roots, even when he meets his own brand of dream girl (Vera Farmiga), a classy, long-legged bird perched on an airport barstool, poised to take wing to the nearest boarding gate. The frequent fliers meet cute, rating car rental agencies; play catch with fast, sexy ripostes; grow intimate as they compare VIP perks and favored customer cards. Alex is Ryan's kind of woman: sophisticated, silky, self-sufficient, perfect company for layovers. "Think of me as you, with a vagina," she quips.
Clooney and the absolutely first-class Farmiga project the kind of understated sexual chemistry and easy intellectual rapport reminiscent of Nick and Nora in "The Thin Man," Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in "The Awful Truth." This duo so burnishes the notion of romantic comedy for adults with brains, someone should pair them up again soon.
But then another woman threatens to ground Ryan's lighter-than-air lifestyle. His company hires Natalie, a bright, perky 23-year-old (newcomer Anna Kendrick, excellent) with a money-saving plan to pink-ticket people by teleconference, which would make Ryan's heady flights obsolete, while robbing the firing process of even minimal flesh-and-blood contact.
So it seems our hero must come down to earth, one way or another. Reluctantly squiring Alex to his niece's wedding, Ryan shows signs of succumbing to sentiment. Still, advising a groom with cold feet (Danny McBride), the ultra-suave Clooney shares his highly pragmatic bottom line on relationships with ur-redneck McBride: Better to have company ("a co-pilot") on one's short, predictable journey to death, rather than go it alone. Deftly, Reitman interweaves humor and angst, as this deliciously odd couple bond as existential brothers-in-arms.
For a scary moment, post-nuptials, it looks like Reitman's sold out, preparing to land his sharp-witted satire in saccharine environs, playing false with the consequences of his hero's choices. Will "Air" deflate into another wedding-fueled, feel-good romance like "Last Chance Harvey"?
Not by a very long shot. "Up in the Air" bears comparison to Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels," that dark, dark comedy about Hollywood and Depression America. Reitman's third and most promising film doesn't make it to that level of comedy heaven, but it does deliver hard, hilarious truths about our state of play in a sometimes inhospitable universe.
"Who the f--- am I"? inquires Ryan Bingham. Ultimately, just another Everyman facing a screen-spanning summary of airline arrivals and departures, with no guarantee of a happy homecoming.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.