Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Up in the Air

If you like George Clooney, you’ll probably like this slick entertainment vehicle, which keeps the laughs on a slow simmer and throws in a heart-tugging scene from time to time to mask its conceptual shallowness. It’s matinee fun, though the more you think about it, the worse it becomes. (If you plan to see it, you might want to stop reading here.)

Clooney plays a man who travels the country firing people. He’s not the hatchet man who decides whom to fire, merely the anonymous individual from outside the corporation who delivers the bad news. He lives in his suitcase and he likes it that way. In the opening scenes he is portrayed as easy-going but callous, a Teflon apparatchik who considers himself wise in having determined that all human relationships constitute a burden of one sort or another. Early on in the film he meets up with a woman (played by Vera Farmiga) who shares both his lifestyle and his good humor and they have one or two mildly witty romps together.

The film takes on added interest with the arrival of Anna Kendrick in the role of the young executive who overturns Clooney’s world by proposing that the termination process could easily be done through computer screens. This would take the fun out of Clooney’s airport lifestyle, of course, and suddenly his persona shifts from the devil-may-care termination engineer to the caring, seasoned pro who must show Kendrick why remote termination wouldn’t work by taking her out on the road with him. Kendrick is a more interesting person to watch than Clooney or Farmiga. Though her professional facade is even more brutal than Clooney’s, there’s a real character underneath it. When her fiancé dumps her, she grows confused and weepy, and an entertaining dialog ensues between this young woman and her two older and slightly more liberated (or jaded) colleagues.

There are some fun scenes at an electronics convention, and Clooney and Farmiga get nostalgic at his sister’s wedding in Rheinlander, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, every so often we actually sit in as Clooney and Kendrick deliver the bad news to some auto worker or office clerk. If the film were actually about job loss these scenes might be meaningful, but it isn’t, which makes them a little gratuitous. They’re merely emotional props to set in contrast to Clooney’s glib cheeriness. We’re glad they’re there, because it puts us in touch with “real life” for a moment or two, but they clash with the humorous episodes we’ve been enjoying during the rest of the film and expose the underlying shakiness of the plot.

What then, is the film about? It’s about the importance of family connections. Clooney finally figures this out, but everyone in the audience already know it, and after spending most of the film chuckling about his liberated lifestyle, we can hardly be expected to get all warm and fuzzy when he finally sees the light.

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