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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


George Clooney and Vera Farmiga find love in the airport lounge in Up in the Air.
You don't want to see Ryan Bingham show up at your workplace. It means someone - probably you - is going to get canned. Bingham, the central character in Jason Retiman's Up in the Air, is a professional downsizer. Companies hire his firm to fire their employees so that they don't have to. In an opening voiceover, Bingham tells us that he lives in airports and hotel rooms, and he's happy that way. You have to wonder about a guy who actually likes spending 300 days a year on the road firing people. Then again, wondering about is him is exactly the point of the film.

George Clooney plays Bingham. We quickly learn some important things about him: He's generally distant from his sisters. His main goal in life is to hit ten million frequent flier miles. He knows the best restaurant in every major American city. In an airport lounge (one of his many favored refuges from the real world), Bingham hooks up with another constant traveler, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). Almost immediately they begin coordinating their flight schedules in order to have more hook-ups.

In the mother of all ironies, Bingham's job is itself in danger. His company has hired a young hotshot, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), with a major plan to boost profitability. She wants to do all firings via teleconference. This would mean that folks like Bingham would be permanently grounded, thus saving the company air fare and hotel rates. He naturally doesn't like this idea, nor does he think Natalie really understands the fine art of firing someone. The boss (Jason Bateman) agrees to let Bingham take Natalie on the road with him for a while, to see how it's really done. It doesn't take long for the young woman to realize that her mentor is falling for Alex. She encourages him to stop avoiding genuine human interaction and start getting personal. It's odd advice coming from someone who just devised the most impersonal method of terminating people from their jobs, but he suspects she may be right.

Up in the Air is quite an accomplishment in storytelling because it works equally well on two levels. In one sense, it's a very timely critique of our current employment climate, where folks seem to be getting laid off in record numbers. Bingham's company succeeds by trying to make firings seem like a good thing. With each termination, he (and, later, Natalie) hands the employee an "options packet" designed, supposedly, to help them successfully navigate their future. For the tough customers, a little reverse psychology comes into play; Bingham convinces one family man that he should be out pursuing his pipe dream rather than working for a corporation anyway. The film points out, with both satire and pathos, how ruining lives has become just another routine business necessity. Who cares if the hard working family man loses his house so long as the shareholders pocket just a little more cash?

Reitman (who also directed Juno, my favorite film of the last five years) has found a revealing device to drive his point home: during several montages, he incorporates interview footage taken with real people talking about their real job terminations. (We see them as though they are talking to Bingham.) These individuals convey senses of anger, shock, and astonishment that no actor could ever really capture. Their presence reminds us of the human toll that occurs when companies start cutting jobs.

This ties into the second level at which Up in the Air works - as a character study. Bingham is so disconnected from other people that he actually thinks he's doing the terminated a favor. So much of his life has been spent avoiding attachment that he no longer knows what it means. Bingham is happy bouncing around like a pinball because it means he never has to stay and confront anything. This makes him the perfect downsizer; while his victims are emptying their desks, he's already on a plane to the next city. You can imagine how uncomfortable he feels when he's asked to have a man-to-man talk with his future brother-in-law (Danny McBride), at the behest of his sister. Opening up to people scares him.

Alex is perhaps the one person who can break through this shell. The two bond over a love of frequent flier perks, evolve through their fast-and-loose meetings in various hotel rooms, and knock down a major wall when Bingham takes her as his date to his sister's wedding. He begins to wonder if everyone was correct all this time when they said he should drop his guard. Clooney and Farmiga have wonderful chemistry together. These characters connect initially because both want something superficial. Making us care about them can be difficult, but the stars show us how the relationship changes course in expected and unexpected ways.

While she may not be a romantic interest, Natalie ends up having a big influence on Bingham as well. The uptight young woman seems pretty driven on the surface, yet her mentor sees some cracks in the surface. She makes a perfect foil for Bingham because she is emotional where he's cold, and cold in the few places where he at least tries to pretend to have a heart (i.e. the callousness with which she fires somebody). Anna Kendrick (Twilight) picks the movie up and walks away with it. She perfectly nails that strange, paradoxical quality that some fresh-out-of-school graduates have: Natalie is outwardly confident yet inwardly insecure, idealistic about herself yet cynical about others, ambitious in work yet needy in life. This is a star-making turn.

The title Up in the Air refers not only to Bingham's constant flying, but also to the nature of his life (he doesn't really know where he's going) as well as the lives of those he fires (who don't know what their future holds). It equates losing a job to being out of touch emotionally with the world around you. Getting fired is a frightening thing. You have to figure out your next move when there's no clear path and a potentially large number of hurdles in your way. Ryan Bingham is looking at a life that doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular, and he's always trying to figure out how to make the next move without experiencing too much discomfort. The story of how he plots his landing - and what happens as a result - makes for one of the warmest, funniest, and most insightful movies of the year.

( out of four)

Up in the Air is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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