‘Up in the Air’ movie review: George Clooney in airborne HR drama

I’ve got nothing against Jason Reitman, but I’ve found the wunderkind’s highly-acclaimed first two features, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, to be underwhelming and immensely overpraised. 

I enjoyed Up in the Air more than the aforementioned, but you can still add it to that list; it’s a timely, precise, extremely well-acted film that deserves most of the praise that’s being thrown at it, but it still left me wanting. 

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, who has made a career out of firing people; he works for Career Transition Counseling, a corporation that provides layoff hitmen to companies that are unable or unwilling to fire their own employees. 

Bingham’s job, of course, involves a lot of travel – he’s gotta be there in person to lay off people all over the country – which results in a lifestyle that many of us are unfortunately familiar with. He’s on the road so much he barely has a home (his hotel-like apartment is the most alien setting in the film). 

He has no close relationships, even his family members are kept at a cool distance. His identity lies in the virtual realm, numbers and cards in his wallet. In one of the film’s best scenes, Ryan picks up Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) in an airport lounge. You get the sense he’s done this before. And so has she. They’re two of a kind, each knows who they are and what they want. Clooney and Farmiga play off each other wonderfully. 

But Career Transition Counseling, under the rule of slimy Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), might have just made Ryan’s job redundant. They’re about to implement a virtual firing system, a kind of layoff-by-video-chat, that would save the company untold riches in travel fees and eliminate the need for Bingham’s position, or at least the travel-friendly position he has been accustomed to. 

Young upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has devised this system, and Gregory asks Ryan to take her out in the real world to try it out. Here’s one of the problems I had with the film. It makes this new system – by all means a logical extension of what CTC does – out to be cold and impersonal. Which it is, of course, but it compares that to what Ryan does, which is apparently something more noble. Only it isn’t. He’s a corporate hitman, in flesh or on video, whose job shouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world. Bingham does sound sincere while reading his scripted responses, though, I’ll give him that. “We’ll be in touch.” 

Eventually, Ryan forges a larger relationship with Alex, and takes her “home” for his sister’s wedding. And eventually, Up in the Air asks us to care for Ryan Bingham. I can relate to Bingham, identify with him, I can even like the character in a certain way. 

But I don’t care about him, not in the least, his personal philosophy prevents it. If Bingham were watching the movie, he wouldn’t care about the character either. 

There’s a huge, HUGE plot point in Walter Kirn’s novel that has been forcibly removed from the screen version by Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner. I’m not sure it would have made the film significantly better, but it would have filled a gaping hole in regards to Bingham’s character. 

But at least half of Up in the Air is excellent; a timely, pinpoint satire of corporate ethics and corporate travel lifestyle. Acting is first-rate all around. This is one of Clooney’s meatiest roles, and while his character is rather soulless the actor is as charming and likable as ever. Kendrick and (especially) Farmiga offer some wonderful support.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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