UP IN THE AIR

1. There are two stories going on in Up In The Air, and they have no business in the same movie. In the first, a lonely man, for reasons unknown (and not even hinted at, for some reason), has decided to disconnect from the world and spend his entire life flying around the country. The other is about our collapsing economy, and what it does to someone to be fired from their job, to be told that they are no longer needed. The first story has no connection with the second story, and I suspect the second story is only there as some sort of attempt at capturing the zeitgeist, a nod to This Is How We Live Now to make the film feel more important than what it is. It feels cheap. It feels like an attempt by a meandering, not-all-that-well-thought-through film to act like it has something to say when it doesn’t.

2. This is to say: George Clooney, as always, is imminently likable and watchable, but he has no business playing Ryan Bingham. Isn’t Ryan Bingham, all told, kind of insane? Just a step or two removed from Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love, he’s obsessed with American Airline frequent flier miles, a loner misfit who can’t interact with another human being longer than it takes to pay a bar tab. That is to say: The right actor to play this character is someone crazed, someone lost and disheveled, someone able to make us understand why a person would want to live like this. (I’m thinking Michael Shannon, or, if you want a movie star anchor, maybe a Viggo Mortensen.) Ryan Bingham can’t be played by George Clooney because George Clooney has his shit together, or at least excels at playing people who do. Here, he slow burns and turns on the charm and does everything he can to distract us from the fact that Ryan Bingham makes no sense. Are we supposed to sentimentalize his isolation? Are we supposed to cheer his transformation into an actual human being? Because this person is crazy. This is a crazy person.

3. Ryan Bingham is a man who flies around the country and fires people, and at first, this job is merely Bingham’s financier, what allows him to live his nomadic, empty existence. Then he meets Natalie Keener (nicely played by Anna Kendrick), a classic earnest snot-nosed kid who doesn’t know anything, and suddenly, Ryan Bingham cares about his job, suddenly the profession of flying around the country and firing people means something. We’ve been given no reason to think this beforehand, not until the plot requires Bingham to care about his job, to think there’s some sort of art to it, and it’s a bit dispiriting to realize that Up In The Air is going to be about interesting people who are motivated entirely by what the plot requires them to be motivated by. This happens repeatedly: When Ryan needs to show that he’s care about his family after all, voila, there’s his sister’s groom, getting cold feet out of nowhere, cold feet that can only be cured by Ryan’s soothing pep talk. When Natalie needs to be humanized from a cold-hearted efficient capitalist, whammo, her boyfriend breaks up with her and she falls into a crying jag. When we need to see that Ryan has changed his ways — which the movie equates with “liking a girl,” as if someone as pathological as Ryan would just drop an entire lifestyle just like that — he’s gets to give a heartfelt speech at a conference at the exact point that he is having his change of heart. (For a movie about a man so removed from humanity, by the way, Up In The Air sure does let Ryan make lots of speeches.) It’s difficult to invest too much in Ryan’s “journey” when the plot just keeps yanking him and everyone else to and fro, whenever it needs them. This is a sitcom.

4. Director Jason Reitman, a talented young guy who never misses an opportunity to tell us how young and talented he is, has a way with actors, particularly with casting, and he nails every role here, from Clooney, Kendrick and the mesmerizing Vera Farmiga on down to a sleazy Jason Bateman and a devastated J.K. Simmons. The three leads are so charming that the movie coasts on their charm: Clooney plays a certain type of character so well that you don’t realize how wrong he is for the part, and by the end, you hardly care. Farmiga is the real find here, though: She’s effortlessly sexy, funny and real, so much so that you believe her character’s ultimate twist, even if you probably shouldn’t. She’s so luminous that you understand why Ryan would want to change his life for her … even if it doesn’t make any sense.

5. I think the ultimate resolution of Ryan’s story — or lack thereof — speaks to the general problem with Up In The Air: It’s not willing to follow its characters toward their logical conclusions. Everyone gets a happy gloss, even though, particularly in Ryan’s case, their lives are chaotic and foolish and nonsensical. This is easy to do, though, if you’ve been yanking your characters around the whole movie anyway and hoping to get away with it through a tentative, specious tie to real-world events. (The interviews Reitman shows with real-life, laid-off employees are moving and completely out of place. Ryan Bingham might or might not be trying to figure himself out, and he might or might not succeed, but at least he still has a damned job.) Compare this film to Michael Clayton, a movie that actually did tap into something in the real world, a story about faceless corporate villains who always get what they want, even when they theoretically “lose.” Clooney is perfect in that film, a guy who knows his one moment of “heroism” won’t add up to much but can’t help himself anyway. Here, he’s a sane person playing an insane one, in a movie that pretends his charms are enough to gloss over its slack plot and ungainly lurches toward relevance. This is a likable film, with likable actors and a breezy, pleasant pace. If you’re not paying close attention, you’d almost miss that this film is a crock. But it is. It’s an elegant con.

Grade: C+