This is Reitman’s third film after ‘Thank You for Smoking’ and ‘Juno’, both of which were much less assured when it came to marrying social reality and laughs. George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a bachelor and corporate lone gun who derives more pleasure from the 300-plus days a year he spends travelling around the country making people redundant than the 43 ‘miserable’ ones he spends at home in a characterless apartment, out of step with the parochial glamour of his middle-rung executive lifestyle.
Bingham, played winningly straight by Clooney, is a rare airborne species whose entire existence is threatened when his company hires tight-faced, thrusting young graduate Natalie Keener (a fun Anna Kendrick) to reassess the company’s operations. This preppy pipsqueak’s big idea is to stop sending reps around the country and instead give clients’ employees their marching orders via a glorified version of Skype. It’s an idea that falls sympathetically on credit-crunched managerial ears, although Bingham’s worried reaction reflects our conflicted response to the movie as a whole: half of him fears for those about to be sacked by satellite, while the other half fears losing a lifestyle that allows him to indulge in pleasures such as no-strings affairs with fellow travellers like Alex (Vera Farmiga), a good-time lady who implores him to ‘think of me as yourself with a vagina’. We might sympathise with those clearing their desks, but the threat of not being able to tag along with Clooney for the ride feels just as critical. It’s an honest point: empathy only ever stretches so far.
For all its superficial topicality, ‘Up in the Air’ mostly feels old-fashioned, nostalgic even, in its fond lament for a pre-9/11 world of travel. There are no security scares in this world. Its fetishisation of the rituals of flying is near-pornographic, with check-in girls substituting for bedfellows and frequent-flyer cards for sex toys. Bingham’s winning of millions of air miles come across as notches on his bed post. He’s the Warren Beatty of interstate business travel.
It’s a pleasure to watch an adult American comedy that tries to deal with the real world, however much of a fantasy it carves from it. But the film’s later scenes as Bingham attends the wedding of a distant sister and has to face some ground-level realities about himself and his relationships are not as convincing or edifying as they should be and his sideline in motivational speaking never rings true as a symbol of his changing attitude to life. The film’s final announcement that even the most frequent flights of imagination have to touch down at some point is conventional and a little disappointing. But the journey is a riot while it lasts.