The James Clayton Column: George Clooney cushions the blow

Is it possible to dislike George Clooney? After watching Up In The Air, James wonders if the ex-Batman is the key to Oscar gold...

If you’re trying to bag an Oscar, making a movie that touches a raw nerve of topicality is a good idea. Another good tactic for securing award season glory: get George Clooney on board. With its plot striking a chord of relevance in the recession and the red-carpet veteran in the leading role, Up In The Air can’t fail. All involved are going to spend February receiving trophies, repeating thank you speeches and raving at the best aftershow parties.

And how ace would it be to party with George Clooney? He’s the kind of Hollywood star you could kick back and have a drink with. In all his handsome roguishness he’s like a real life version of Han Solo, except instead of the Millennium Falcon and a Wookiee sidekick he’s got a pet pig and a palace in the Italian lakes.

The star power and radiating aura of the charismatic man is such that even if he’s in a stinker, he emerges untainted. He’s unflappable and irrepressible, even when he’s beset by Mexican brothel vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn or playing conceited clowns in Burn After Reading and O, Brother Where Art Thou?

In my view, at least, you can’t hate Clooney. Aside from being a capable and committed actor and a pretty charming, good-looking chap, he does good work as a supporter of independent ‘non-commercial’ cinema and as a humanitarian activist as well. Women want him and men want to be him; and I’m pretty sure, alternately, that many men want him and some women want to be him as well.

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Still, would we like Clooney so much if his sole purpose in life was telling poor working schmucks that they’re being laid off? In Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, Clooney plays ‘corporate downsizing expert’ Ryan Bingham. Remove the euphemistic phrasing and essentially he’s the delivery boy of death, bringing bad news that bosses are too spineless to impart themselves.

Off-screen, the actor is campaigning for Haitian earthquake relief and is an official UN Messenger of Peace. In complete contrast, in Up In The Air he’s Corporate Assassin for the indifferent Captains of Industry hiding in their ivory towers. The boys on the board send their bullet-boy George on business class to dump on their employees without having to get their hands dirty. Despicable.

I’m having trouble grasping this notion and taking it seriously. I can’t face up to the idea that Clooney could do such a thing for a living. This is an elaborate prank. Even though he’s done deep, meaningful and serious (in, say, Solaris and Syriana), his record as a comedy actor and his glowing charisma convinces me that this is all a con. Say “Up In The Air with George Clooney” out loud and you’ll see what I mean. That sounds more like a high-budget porn movie or an A-list Mile High Club initiation ceremony than a timely Oscar-worthy flick reflecting the current recession.

I also can’t approach the film sensibly because aeroplanes and airports are central to the story, which inevitably leads my thoughts back to Airplane! and, concomitantly, I’ll crash into delirium. Show me a cockpit and I’ll expect Otto the Autopilot to inflate behind the controls. Give me a whole movie grounded in the world of long distance air travel and I’ll spend the entire length of it expecting punch-lines that are probably never going to come.

Just as some people can’t go near a Mini Cooper without feeling a deep need to re-enact chase scenes from The Italian Job, I suffer the crippling condition that keeps me maniacally quoting the script of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker spoof as soon as I enter an airport or take a seat on a plane. I start babbling “Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor”, hallucinate and see Leslie Nielsen over my shoulder. It could be the altitude or something in the complimentary savoury nibbles; or it could be a side-effect of spending my entire childhood watching the Airplane! video, rewinding it, then watching it again. Someone needs to sort out the binge-spoof-movie-watching that blights the desperate youths of our nation…

Affected as I am, as soon as I spy airport scenery, Up In The Air doesn’t have a chance of escaping Airplane!‘s distracting influence. Instead of the actual movie I imagine fantasy scenarios of Clooney descending the stairs from his sky carriage to greet some unfortunate individual: “Good to see you Ernie, Sorry to be abrupt but I’ve got a message from New York.”

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Ernie gasps anxiously and inquires, “New York?! What is it?” Clooney replies dead-pan: “It’s a big city on the east coast with skyscrapers and yellow taxis, but that’s not important right now. Look Ernie, the truth is that the company is going to have to let you go…”

Ernie blinks in disbelief and looks to the suave figure in front of him hoping for reassurance. “Surely you can’t be serious?!” Clooney cocks his head to the side, looks right into Ernie’s soul with his honest eyes and utters the cutting response, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

Cue melodramatic music and Ernie committing suicide in tragicomic fashion (swan-diving into a jet engine, stealing a shoe-bomber’s boots) whilst Bingham sighs forlornly and reaches into his pocket to retrieve a small brown packet. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit magic mushrooms.” Either that or he spontaneously bursts into an a cappella rendition of Man Of Constant Sorrow by the baggage collection carousel.

Even if the recession era re-enactment of the definitive spoof doesn’t come off and Up In The Air doesn’t descend into total farce, you still can’t dispute that, if you’re going to be laid off, being told by George Clooney lines the cloud with silver. You may now have no income and no stability, but at least you’ve got George’s sympathetic smile to spur you on as you seek to claim jobseeker’s allowance.

The affable actor would probably help you fill in application forms and psych you up before interviews. At the very least he’d give you a ride to the nearest soup kitchen.

Everything is much better when Clooney is present. Despite the fact that the world is disintegrating and you’ve been left desperate, destitute and depressed, it’s just comforting to know that George is out there making witty and sophisticated movies.

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A DVD copy of Up In The Air should be included in the redundancy package of every downsizing company. The least sacked employees deserve is Clooney to cushion the blow.

James’ previous column can be found here.