Were Nick Naylor, the wily tobacco industry lobbyist from Jason Reitman’s debut feature Thank You For Smoking, to meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the debonair corporate downsizer from his third, they’d probably get on like a house on fire.
No doubt they’d swap stories on one of the planes the latter calls home, down a few complimentary beverages before going their separate ways with each other’s business card tucked inside their impeccably tailored suits.
As soon as they got to their respective five-star hotels, of course, they’d promptly throw those cards away. The difference is Ryan would probably chuck Nick’s right there in the airport.
Not that Ryan’s a shit. It’s just that he doesn’t care about anything but his own existence, flitting from city to city to sack employees their bosses are too gutless to can themselves. (The politically correct term for what he does is “career transition counselling”, which is a bit like calling somebody who cleans up dung for a living a “fecal matter specialist”.)
Up in the clouds he can cut himself off from the sprawling conurbations that lie beneath him, blissfully free to savour the creature comforts of executive travel and pursue his personal goal of notching up 10 million air miles. He can also look forward to his next liaison with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer with, he thinks, the same no-strings attitude towards life and love.
Alas, into each life some rain must fall. And it comes into Ryan’s in the form of Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young efficiency whizz who’s convinced his boss (Jason Bateman) that people can be “let go” much more cheaply over the internet. Suddenly things look a lot less agreeable for this denizen of the skies, whose next trip – on which he’s charged with showing Natalie the ropes – could well be his last.
The more Ryan fights to keep what he’s got, however, the more he starts to wonder if it’s worth fighting for at all. It’s hard to deny the current economic climate gives Up In The Air a resonance it didn’t have when Walter Thumbsucker Kim wrote his source novel back in 2001.
Indeed, one of Reitman’s smartest plays is to populate his story’s fringes with actual workers who’ve been cruelly jettisoned. Yes, some of those firings are played for laughs, notably one that sees The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis go postal at the prospect of redundancy. But the Juno director never does this lightly, countering this early burst of farce with a poignant cameo later from JK Simmons as an ageing recession victim painfully aware he has been thrown on the scrap heap.
Reitman himself facilitates a career transition over the final credits by featuring a self-penned track from Kevin Renick, a former ad man who turned to music to help him process the pain of joblessness. But as topical as all this may be, it is essentially an old-fashioned star vehicle for an old-style leading man capable of being a selfish loner, charismatic charmer and flawed human being all at once.
Cary Grant could have done it in his day, as could Robert Redford in his. But this is Clooney’s time and parts needing raffish self-assurance, urbane refinement and existential self-doubt are his for the asking. True, Bingham is not sizeably different from what we’ve seen him do before. Yet the older Clooney gets, the better he becomes at exposing the cracks behind his elegant veneer.
Witness the scene in which, having reluctantly headed home for his sister’s wedding, he gallantly offers her (Melanie Lynskey) his arm as she walks down the aisle only to find she’s asked a more dependable relative to do the honours instead. It’s a masterclass in rueful heartbreak, hidden by a smile as sad as a tear on a cheek. But his is not the only performance of note in Reitman’s fine ensemble cast.
Farmiga is a classy delight as Clooney’s Miss Right, matching him in snappy repartee as surely as she does in executive perk cards and exclusive memberships. Kendrick, meanwhile, holds her own against her seasoned co-stars in a role that could have been intolerable had the New Moon actress not given her prissy buzzkill a core of touching insecurity.
OK, so Danny McBride sounds familiar notes of provincial oafishness as Lynskey’s kindly but gormless beau. But his broad contribution is hardly a liability in a movie not afraid to be playful en route to its surprisingly bleak finale.
It’s a sign of Reitman’s mounting confidence as a writer/director that he’s able to pull off such a tricky balancing act, delivering the kind of polished vehicle Clooney’s fans expect while remaining faithful to his story’s trenchant and sardonic tone.
To borrow a line from Diablo Cody, it’ll be interesting to see what other kind of shenanigans he gets into next.
Witty, pertinent and moving, this is a sophisticated treat from a director who gets exponentially better with every picture. But it’s Clooney that makes it soar with his most accomplished acting to date. Think of this as his Jerry Maguire.