Already showered with Golden Globe nominations and fervent Oscar buzz, Up In The Air arrives in the UK with expectations set to high. Capping a recent hat-trick of starring roles for Clooney that started with Fantastic Mr. Fox, followed swiftly by The Men Who Stare At Goats, it also begs the question: can there be such a thing as too much Clooney?
On the basis of Up In The Air, a film a that meets those lofty expectations and then some, the answer is a resounding no. Not when Clooney’s as good as he is here. Where Fox and Goats were enjoyable but ultimately disposable, Air feels like the most mature and fully realised film from both Clooney and director Jason Reitman. After the sometimes too-hip-for-their-own-good Thank You For Smoking and Juno, it’s a film that manages to be both funny and heartfelt, while filled with characters that feel real to the touch.
Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a corporate downsizing expert, drafted in by companies to fire their staff. He travels across America, living out of a suitcase that takes him from one company to another, and he loves every minute of it. The routine of travel, the executive lounges, the express checking-in. He presents a ‘What’s in Your Backpack’ lecture that extols the virtues of not being weighed down by the unnecessary burden of relationships.
Yet, when his company suddenly embraces the idea of young twenty-something Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) to use video calling to dismiss employees across America without leaving the office, Bingham’s way of life comes under threat. Determined to prove her wrong, he takes her under his wing and across America to show her the realities of what he does.
And on the way he falls for Vera Farmiga’s Alex Goran, a woman after his own heart. “Just think of me as you, only with a vagina,” she tells him. They flirt over rental car services and airline credit cards. hey plan their next encounter hunched over laptops examining their flight plans.
A man who has no interest in getting married or having children, Bingham seems, on paper at least, little of a stretch for Clooney. Indeed, the film’s first third plays on his public persona, loading him with knowing smiles and a suave, debonair charm. Yet halfway through, both character and actor undergo a transformation.
As Bingham begins to see what he’s been missing by a life lived in isolation, all signs of Clooney the actor disappear. Stripped bare, it’s the most intimate and painfully honest performance of his career.
Farmiga is just as good. The two share a chemistry that evolves wonderfully as the story progresses, and one that binds the film’s forays into a wide range of styles and influences together seamlessly.
Reitman is nothing if not ambitious. Using non-actors who’d recently been laid off in real life opposite Clooney in the film’s scenes of firings and dismissals (save for extended cameos by J.K. Simmons and The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), the film’s early scenes underline the humour inherent in here: the incredulity of the individuals, the well-rehearsed reactions from Bingham.
Later, Reitman changes tact to underline the meaning of what a job means to people and the emotional impact of losing that which can define you. Then it turns into a charming odd couple comedy during its second act, with Kendrick’s fresh-faced ingénue Keener learning the ropes from seasoned pro Bingham. She’s planned her life out already: the type of man she wants to marry, the kind of dog they’ll own. He’s more focused on getting to 10 million airmiles than finding someone to spend his life with, or getting to know his sisters that he’s become a stranger to. They bounce off each other, and the film delights in showing how different they are, yet how close they become.
But it’s at its most beguiling when Farmiga and Clooney share the screen. Come the third act, Reitman shifts gear again, conjuring a love story fashioned from 60s/70s American cinema. With a Graduate-style soundtrack he hints at the burgeoning relationship that feels like a first love. He pulls you in deeper and deeper until you’re grinning from ear to ear like Clooney’s Bingham, only now it doesn’t feel put-upon or practised, but honest.
Air‘s ending may not be the one many would expect (it was one I certainly didn’t), but it doesn’t feel false or manipulative. Reitman has crafted a film that feels every bit as unpredictable as life can be, and just as funny and sad.
If you’re only going to see one Clooney film this year, make it this one.