Sunday, 24 January 2010

Cinema: Up in the Air

What if you desire to live in transit, tied to nothing, nowhere and nobody? In this Jason Reitman ('Juno', 'Thank You for Giving Up Smoking') adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel of the same name, George Clooney plays a corporate downsizer who lives his life in airport lounges, hotel rooms and identikit meeting rooms, laying off workers whose bosses are too timid to do the deed themselves. He also has a sideline in selling his philosophy of life - keep your backpack below cabin size, travel light through life - to those same bosses who like to attend motivational sessions to escape the monotonous grind of their managerial responsibilities. Unlike them, he practices what he preaches.

For girls who love Clooney, you need not fear he's had to sacrifice some of his trademark charm to play Ryan Bingham, this lone wolf of the skies. He might be a shark, not a swan, but it's Clooney's cross-gender sex appeal that enables us to empathise with a man who most of us wouldn't ordinarily spend two hours in the company of voluntarily. I can think of no other actor alive who could've carried this film, and it is a film worth carrying, having elements of romantic comedy - more thorns than rose - but tackling the economic downturn in a way that both both provokes and entertains.

The other key roles in the movie are female, and all well played: whether his occasional lover (like him, 'but with a vagina', one with surprising offspring) Alex (Vera Farmiga); his ingenue sidekick Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who threatens his ambition of being the seventh and youngest man to clock up ten million air miles by revolutionising the recession's most successful industry with dismissal by webcam (she gets dumped by txt and changes her life as a consequence, but not before disrupting Bingham's ever changing, never changing routine); or his two sisters Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey), the latter on the verge of marriage, so long as Bingham steps in and does the elder brotherly thing, one of life's many roles he's not accustomed to fulfilling, turning his gift of the gab against his own philosophy.

But many of the film's funniest and most moving moments come not from the central and professional cast but through scenes involving, and interviews with, those who've recently lost their jobs in real life. These talking heads were plucked from the dole queues to share their experiences, each unique but somehow universal. It is them that elevate standard rom-com fare into a state-of-the nation movie. Filmed mainly in St Louis but set in the airport cities of several states across the union, aerial shots give you a sense of this county that is a continent, while what's going on on the ground is indicative of the times we're still living through and hints at the individual actions that ,when accumulated, were the cause of our current economic malaise.

You can see where this is going - the man who's spent all his life avoiding connections, let alone commitments, begins to have them forced upon him, then discovers that maybe that's what he's wanted  all -along -  but only maybe. He is after all touchingly loyal - he's worked many years for a single corporation, flies with one airline, sticks with a favourite hotel chain, only drives the cars of one hire car firm and has the gold, platinum and graphite cards to prove it. He packs the same way for every trip, has a home more functional and less personal than the rooms-for-hire he spends the majority of his nights in, and believes dressing casually is removing one's tie - everything you hate about business travel, that's why he loves it so.

When he confronts the departure board at the end of the film and watches his life flip over before him, all and yet nothing has changed. If our best moments are spent in the company of those we love and are loved by, we are left with uncertainty - maybe it's too late to put that lesson into action for a man like Bingham, so set in his ways that for him perhaps life really is a solo journey, made without the security  of a co-pilot and ending at the destination we're all flying towards so rapidly.

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