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George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air

Photography by: Dale Robinette/TM and © 2009 by DW Studios LLC. All rights reserved.

3 out of 4 stars


Up in the Air

  • Directed by Jason Reitman
  • Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
  • Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
  • Classification: 14A

It looks like a romantic comedy. It jokes like a romantic comedy. It's got the charm and the quick banter and the amorous epiphany of a romantic comedy. But just when we're settled into a comfortable groove, gainfully employed in the audience's usual job of having its expectations satisfied, the movie boots us out of our complacency. Summoned to its office, we and our smug assumptions are cut loose, sent packing and left ... yes, up in the air, free-falling in a world much darker than we imagined.

No wonder the opening scene is a montage of people getting fired. The climate is definitely recessionary, but the economy's bust is Ryan Bingham's boom. That's because he works for the company that companies hire when they're laying off staff and can't face the slaughter themselves. A consummate pro, Ryan is a hatchet-man who keeps his axe as sharp as his intelligence. The blade is awfully bloody these days, yet few would claim it isn't deftly swung - his victims are severed with an efficient dispatch that leaves no legal mess and scant time for tears. In Ryan's skilled hands, heads roll neatly down the elevator and out of the building, entire careers gone in mere minutes, with nothing to mark their absence save a stacked pile of security passes - the notches in every corporation's tightened belt.

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Directed by Jason Reitman, Up in the Air stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

So we hate the guy, right? Not when he's played by George Clooney with his roguish charm and deft wit cranked up to full high beams. Turns out getting canned by Clooney is a joy to behold. Better yet, his character is at peace, and of a piece, with his job. What he does to others he's also done to himself - severed any meaningful ties with those around him, with his family and community. A travelling executioner, Ryan's home is on a plane and in a hotel room, which is exactly where he likes it - packing light, moving fast, racking up air miles and flying over all the domestic conventions that ground his fellow mortals.

Clearly, with his on-screen buoyancy, not to mention his off-screen rep, Clooney is made for this role. So is Vera Farmiga as Alex, a fetching blonde who shares Ryan's peripatetic habits and no-strings credo. Meeting in a Hilton lounge, the two pack in a night of sex just as they do their carry-on luggage - with brisk enjoyment, taking pride in the arrangement of things. The morning after, flight schedules are compared and future meetings mapped out. Life is good fast fun. So, at this point, is the flick.

Enter the complication when Ryan's boss brings in the aptly named Natalie Keener (a wonderfully prim Anna Kendrick). She's a hot-shot fresh out of grad school and armed with a cost-saving scheme: to eliminate travel expenses by confining the henchmen to the Omaha headquarters, then having them do their dirty work via "video conferencing." Naturally, our wayfarer is having none of that. Inviting little Miss Keener on the road, he teaches her a thing or two about the real world of summary executions. And, no doubt, he learns a valuable lesson himself, the kind that's sure to put the enduring romance into the flighty comedy.

Or so we think. But director Jason Reitman has other, more interesting ideas. As he proved in Juno and Thank You for Smoking , Reitman possesses a flair for off-kilter scenarios, and he's in fine form again, taking his triangulated principals - Ryan, Alex, Keener - out of their comfort zones and into a more complicated geometry. This is where the complacent audience gets the sack, turfed out of its own comfort zone. As in all comedies, there's a wedding, but here it's really just a sideshow. As in all romances, there's a heartfelt realization, but this time it's not much of a heart. As for the implicit tragedy amidst the funny business, the swelling ranks of the unemployed, the movie has no solution but instead offers itself as implicit solace: Escape, ye wretches, into my clever humour and my nifty dialogue and my star's considerable charm.

Maybe that's a cop out - occasionally, the picture can seem too buoyant, too much at frothy odds with its underlying content. Or perhaps, like Ryan, it's just doing its job unburdened by hypocrisy. So if the unexpected ending leaves us as hung out to dry as the recently terminated, at least we've been thoroughly amused en route. After all, in an age of change and uncertainty when everything is up in the air, Up in the Air delivers a down-to-earth message: "We're here to make limbo bearable." Grin, then, and gratefully bear it.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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