It's possible that director Jason Reitman's cinematic ideas are so torturously divided that he can't help but make a film as indecisive as Up in the Air. It's also possible that he just doesn't know who he is yet, much like his main character, frequent flier Ryan Bingham (George Clooney).
Clooney, as utterly charming and irresistibly 'movie starâ?� as ever, plays a man whose job it is to glide into office buildings and quietly fire certain workers. His clients see him as a precaution against the type of rage (which Orlando has come to know well) that's heightened by crippling unemployment rates. Clooney views himself as an artist, an old-fashioned dinosaur who, like Don Draper, imbues his career with empathetic meaning and humanist connection. The problem, at least from the film's point of view, is that empathy and human connection is what he lacks in real life.
That disconnect and minimalist lifestyle is challenged when his company brings in Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a post-grad, Web 2.0 acolyte who has found a way to make workers like Ryan Bingham redundant. Before she can implement her changes, however, she's forced to go on the road with Bingham and learn his trade.
Reitman wants to have his cake and eat it, too. The portion of the film that explains Bingham's worldview is liberally coated with a beautiful gloss of set design, virtuoso shot choices and impeccable dialogue. Yet there's a drabness to the look, a blueness, that suggests an emptiness (albeit a pretty one) within Bingham. It's celebration with guilt.
Natalie's presence remains unexplained from beginning to end: She says she can save them tons of money, but why would they blindly trust in her promises enough to hand her the operations? And when it looks like her plans might work, why do they suddenly recoil from them? It doesn't help matters that Kendrick can't sell her performance to us, so we can't believe her character could sell anything to any company.
Eventually, Bingham believes he's fallen for a fellow traveler (the effervescent Vera Farmiga) and, encouraged by little yapping Natalie, he plunges himself back into the human world of family. Again, Reitman's overzealous thematics push something that the rest of the film has not earned: That home life is warm (and shot with the filter of a childhood blanket) and sometimes dramatic but always rewarding. This third act, in which Bingham bounces aimlessly from newfound appreciation to apprehension and back to his original point of view, feels not only false but unwelcome within the rest of the movie. It doesn't belong, which is fine as long as Reitman's not pushing too hard to make us believe it does until he himself accepts that it does not. And Reitman doesn't just push; he crams it down our throats.
There will be a line of thinking to suggest that all of these issues can be wished away by the claim that it's a 'difficultâ?� film and 'challenges preconceptionsâ?� or what have you. But it's only hard to come to grips with in the way that it's difficult to watch a squirrel try to decide which way to run to get out of the way of a fast car. Is that squirrel challenging and unconventional or is it just fatally indecisive? In the spirit of Reitman's film, let's just say, 'Who knows?â?�