UP IN THE AIR (Jason Reitman, 2009)

George Clooney certainly is a star; who can deny his charisma as Ryan Bingham, a roving corporate employment terminator? An incompetent actor, however, he is apparently incapable of bringing a characterization of any sort to his weathered charm and crinkly smiles. Bingham, in his hands, is an idealized figure rather than a recognizable human being. Bingham needs to have some of our flaws to be of any interest to us.
     The title of Jason Reitman’s comedy-drama, which Reitman and Sheldon Turner loosely adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, refers to two things: Bingham’s air travel as he lends the personal touch to firing countless employees of countless businesses and scatters his cynical motivational speeches across the nation; the lonely irresolution of bachelor Bingham’s life. I liked Thumbsucker (Mike Mills, 2005), also based on a Kirn book, a whole lot more.
     Irony: Bingham himself is on track to lose his job; Natalie Keener has been hired to fire by computer interface with those being fired—her own same-virtual-room idea, and a cost-cutting measure. Right now, with Bingham at her side to teach her the proper chopping-block etiquette, she is honing her skills with her victims, unbeknownst to them, only an actual room away. Unfortunately, one piece of Natalie’s handiwork has pressured a fired person to end her life by jumping off a bridge. Meanwhile, Bingham’s romance with Alex (Vera Farmiga, excellent), like him a business traveler, may be deepening. Or not: this aspect of the plot is resolved on a sour anti-feminist, smug gender tables-turning note.
     Indeed, the film goes nowhere, its satire failing to consider the relationship between capitalism and unemployment analytically, and overall settling to resolve its plot lugubriously. Call this movie a “male weepie.” Under the circumstances, its use of actual people whose employment has recently been terminated—they speak directly into the camera, baring their anguish—seems mildly callous and certainly unnecessary. Remember how beautifully this was done—with people in their jobs rather than out—in Fernando Meirelles and Nando Olival’s Domésticas (2001) from Brazil?
     Reitman needs to channel the ghost of Billy Wilder if he wishes to make the material in this film crackle, and he needs to consult Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Little Miss Sunshine (2006) for a superior example of bringing social criticism into the filmmaking mainstream. Now that one went somewhere. It didn’t leave us up in the air.
     Best screenplay prizes galore; a smattering of acting prizes for Clooney and Farmiga.

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