Up in the Air

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in <em>Up in the Air</em>

The highly entertaining George Clooney and Vera Farmiga are in very fine form as occasional jet-set lovers, but this comedy-drama about a businessman whose job involves traveling around the country from corporate office to corporate office and handing people their pink slips — plus a pep talk about the positive aspects of unemployment — quickly devolves from slick recession satire into glumly moralizing parable. In the film’s first half, Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a smug free spirit, finding degrees of happiness in his first-class seating privileges and accumulated airline mileage even as he disassociates himself emotionally from the reality of the lives he’s disrupting. He even gives motivational speeches about the dangers of accumulating material goods and personal relationships, advocating a highly mobile, narrow-footprint existence. And thus the film’s second half contrives to teach him a lesson about the importance of companionship, the significance of family and grown roots, and the general emptiness of his frequent-flier pursuits.

No wonder this has been talked up so heavily as an Oscar contender — the Academy loves a redemption drama. At least writer/director Jason Reitman undermines the formula by refusing to redeem Clooney’s character on screen. But despite Bingham’s obvious contentedness, Reitman thinks he needs redemption, and the resulting preachiness is suffocating. Here’s a movie where every conversation is a referendum on Bingham’s too-comfy lifestyle, every plot thread is meant to illustrate how estranged Bingham really is from his own purported happiness. A popular complaint about bluntly written dialogue is that it’s too “on-the-nose.” Well, this whole movie is on the nose.

I did admire the film’s characterization of unemployment as a kind of limbo state, where souls meander, helpless and despairing, as they attempt to pick up the pieces of their life. One image, especially, is unexpectedly true and poignant: a weeping receptionist phoning in Ryan’s ghastly arrival to whatever boss remains in an office that’s been largely stripped of workaday accouterments like desks, chairs, and cubicle walls, populated only by those last-man-standing stragglers who answer the phones and wait for the hammer to pound the final nail in. There are a few affecting moments along those lines, but when they’re used to milk pathos from an accompanying fable about Clooney’s Brooks-Brothers-suited, corporate-card-wielding lost boy, they make the whole endeavor seem queasily opportunistic.

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