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Screen Scene: “Up in the Air”

By Edward Truong

Dec. 2, 2009 11:37 p.m.

George Clooney is but a few steps away from becoming an adjective.

In “Up in the Air,” he plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant who travels across the country to help corporations fire employees. Clooney’s performance is one that is suave, charming and sophisticated in a manner that makes the ladies swoon, but without that smutty feeling afterward.

Bingham is a vagabond of sorts, flying from one airport to another, checking into so many different hotels that he forgets which keycard is for which room. His journey is never-ending, terminating employees (and helping them “transition,” which means handing them a fancy green folder) and occasionally giving motivational speeches in hotel conference rooms about the virtues of a commitment-free life.

But Bingham is not a cruel villain. If anything, he sees his occupation as a calling, a noble service that is important, but also fits his on-the-go lifestyle. It becomes problematic, however, once his corporation decides to make the process more efficient by terminating employees via webcam, effectively grounding him.

This is an issue, as Bingham lives a rather isolated life and his only real relationship is one with the companies that accompany him in his travel: American Airlines, Hertz and the like. The new corporate policy jeopardizes a goal near to his heart: earning 10 million frequent flier miles, and high jinks ensue.

It’s a joy to see the choreography behind Bingham’s highly skilled travels, from the precision-tight packing of his luggage ““ carry-on only, of course ““ to the politically incorrect method of choosing which line to stand in during the security checkpoint. This is a seasoned veteran who likes the life he has created for himself and is not particularly interested in change.

Jason Reitman, who also directed the satirical comedy “Thank You for Smoking” and the indie sap fest “Juno,” wrote and directed the film. Similar to a majority of other recent releases, it is a fairly loose adaptation of a book, in this case, a 2001 novel of the same name written by Walter Kirn.

Reitman has updated the novel with a nod to the all-too-clear current economic shambles. Now, more than ever, a movie about corporate layoffs and downsizing is extremely relevant, and if Reitman had decided to set a scene in Murphy Hall, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The film also includes footage of real Americans who have been let go from their jobs, a seemingly poignant sign of the times.

It would be insulting to the accomplishments of Reitman and his film to shove it into a constructed category such as a “romcom,” “road trip movie” or a “dramedy,” when in fact “Up in the Air” is so much more.

Sure, it is funny and there is a love interest, Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow traveler who seems to share the same love of the voyager lifestyle. There’s also a spunky young coworker who is assigned to tag along with Bingham, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), and they teach each other how to live, laugh and love.

There’s even the surprise cameos that are so popular these days; one by the most talented and underrated rappers of the early ’90s (in my opinion, at least) and the clever use of one of the most fantastic cell phone applications of our time (again, in my eyes).

But what sets this film apart is its ability to take the viewer beyond any notions of tired plot devices and cheap cliches. Instead, we are given real depth, such as getting laid off from a job and the fact that life can be pretty complicated and even a little messy. “Up in the Air” does a great job of showing that.

E-mail Truong at [email protected]

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Edward Truong
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