At the Arthouse

Up in the Air is timely and terrific

Up in the Air is timely and terrific

News_George Clooney_Up in the Air_movie poster

It’s hard to imagine a non-war movie capturing the American zeitgeist as clearly as Up in the Air has. Since we appear to be in a time of endless armed conflict, you can shoot a Middle East-based war movie anytime in the next several years and bank on being au courant. But to have a film about a man who makes his living by taking other people’s jobs away from them appear in 2009 calls for simply uncanny timing. I guess if it had come out last spring it would’ve been even more pointedly dead on, but still…

But Up in the Air has much more going for it than timeliness. The very sharp cast, led by George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, the traveling executioner, and brilliantly seconded by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, takes the film into bumpy (i.e. emotionally complicated) air space—you’ll want to keep your seat belts fastened.

For starters, Clooney’s Bingham is far from the heartless bastard you’d expect. If you personally are looking for a film that will allow you to vent against the bastard who fired you, you’ll have to wait a little longer. Bingham respects his victims’ dignity, and their pain, to the fullest possible extent. He probably isn’t even lying when he tells them that this termination could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Unencumbered by a job, now they can go out and do what they really want.

Bingham’s pitch is sincere because he sees the encumbrance-free life as a Holy Grail—one that he has himself attained. He lives his life as a free man, “on the road 322 days a year,” and sees no need for personal entanglements.

It’s the job of Farmiga’s character, Alex, herself a beautiful but strangely available road warrior, to eventually crack Bingham’s emotional shell. But in Bingham’s case, “cracking shells” turns out to be as painful as it sounds. He allows himself to become humanized, or “grounded” in every sense of the word, but he isn’t careful to check that none of his miles have expired.

Clooney’s performance is a triumph. He’s had plenty of fun with his pretty-boy image, but for him his impeccable cool has always been a tool, and not his reason for being. This time he shows how that image, which he shares with his character, comes up short as an adult way of life. He lives his life in the not-so-great indoors and his good looks are starting to be a memory. He looks physically bruised, even slightly beaten—but his pain comes from the inside.

This is the story of a man who gets the point, who understands that he’s been terribly mistaken, but that realization comes too late. He’s still wracking up the miles when the final credits roll.