Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham ia a successful 40-something businessman who’s never been married, has no children and an inordinate interest in with collecting airline frequent flyer miles.  From this slender idea is built an unusually affecting, almost Chekhovian, meditation about our life choices.   What does it mean when you discover, in the middle of your life, that your most durable long-term relationship is with an airline?

The film is a comedy, in the Shakespearean sense — a wedding is involved.  There are some very funny scenes built around the absurdities of modern airline travel, and lots of  witty dialogue.  I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Clooney’s young female colleague argues with Clooney’s older girlfriend about the proper meaning of feminism.  But the subject matter — Ryan’s job is firing people, on behalf of third parties — is unavoidably serious.

To play the parts of  fired employees, the director, Jason Reitman, cast non-actors who had been fired in real life. The unexpected reactions of these folks keep the movie firmly “grounded” in reality.  And it’s not every day that Omaha, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Detroit appear as movie locales.

George Clooney is often criticized for “playing himself,” and there are certainly similarities between this character’s backstory and Clooney’s own life.  But I think it’s harder than it looks to give the kind of emotionally genuine performance Clooney gives us here.

The two women, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, are also very good.  It’s not often you get to see positive, complex portrayals of successful businesswomen.

A few quibbles:  In the few scenes where we actually see Clooney doing his job, he doesn’t seem very good.  Milwaukee is not in “northern” Wisconsin.  And the Farmiga character’s behavior choices are not always consistent with the personal life she turns out to have.

But on the whole, it’s an adult movie with adult themes — a welcome respite from the barrage of vampire flicks and comics-driven action films that seem to take up most of the screens. The theater was full when I saw it on Saturday, with most of the audience of “a certain age” and not a teenager in sight.  Are you listening, Hollywood?

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