Though typically distinguished by good performances, the work of director Jason Reitman is a rancid mixture of acid and sugar, each element working to cancel the other out so that you’re never entirely put off by either the fashionably acrid bitterness or the conventional Hollywood sap. It’s bad enough that he has a depressingly pedestrian visual sense and relies too heavily on strummy musical montages—his films also purport to sum up, and half-assedly at that, The Times in Which We Live.
Reitman has checked off Big Tobacco (Thank You for Smoking) and Abortion (Juno); with Up in the Air, he tackles the Recession. Ryan Bingham (Clooney, dashing as ever) is a Grade A dickhead with a movie star’s countenance. He jets into select cities to downsize staffers at white-collar institutions, and Reitman films his routines with a weird sense of shock and awe, cannily playing on audience sympathies. (When Bingham packs his suitcase, he might be a ninja tossing shuriken at invisible enemies.)
Then the hatchet man meets Alex (Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer who’s as myopically focused as he is. It would almost be enough to alternate Bingham’s firing sessions with the duo’s smoldering layover trysts, making for the kind of profoundly crude farce that Billy Wilder excelled at.
Yet there’s a silly side plot about a stiff-shirted up-and-comer (Kendrick) who becomes Bingham’s unwitting protg. The steady stream of familiar faces among the unemployed (Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons, etc.) is distracting. And Reitman, who also cowrote the screenplay, feels the constant need to “deepen” his characters, granting them wants and motivations—especially during the moralistic third act—that are totally alien to how they’re initially portrayed.—Keith Uhlich
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