George Clooney is at his best in timely, dark and funny romantic comedy
Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air doesn’t finish quite as pungently as it begins, but the greater part of it has a very sharp, darkly comical bite.
As adapted from Walter Kirn’s acerbic novel of the same name, it gets a good deal of offbeat entertainment mileage out of a very sardonic and somewhat fragmented sort of romantic comedy. But its most remarkable qualities derive from the profession and general outlook of its central character, much of which is most trenchantly delineated in the first half of Reitman’s movie.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is, in a weirdly apposite way, a man of our times. He is a star in his peculiarly timely profession, a combination of motivational speaker and corporate enforcer, and he is much in demand with downsized and/or failing businesses that require his special talents in disarmingly announcing to long-time employees that they’ve been permanently laid off. He is also, by his own admission, a kind of human shark—always in motion and at home only in airports, hotels, conference rooms and the business-class seats of jetliners.
There’s a brash sort of picaresque adventure and irony in the very concept of such a character and such a job, but there is also more to ponder in this particular story. And so Bingham’s oddly charismatic sang-froid gets tested in a variety of not entirely predictable ways in his perpetually out-of-town romance with the similarly shark-like Alex (Vera Farmiga), in the professional and emotional challenges generated by the fresh-out-of-grad-school Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and in his reluctant but inevitable involvement in the wedding of his younger sister.
Clooney is at his charmingly ironic best in this role, and Farmiga matches him spark for icy spark in the liveliest elements of the film’s edgy brand of screwball romance, as it were, with a shark-bite twist to it. Kendrick is effective without being particularly dynamic as the comparatively cerebral and naïve newcomer.
Melanie Lynskey and Amy Morton are suitably effective as Bingham’s amusingly problematical sisters (younger and older, respectively). Sam Elliott and J. K. Simmons have piquant cameo roles, but the really special bit parts belong to the many nonprofessionals playing the people Bingham is coaching into lay-off status, most of them recruited, apparently, from the ranks of the white-collar unemployed.
The Clooney-Farmiga match-up is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. Nevertheless, the film’s efficiency as a darkly inflected romantic comedy may also be part of what throws it a bit off its most engaging course in the late going.