“How much does your life weigh?” George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a hit man. He doesn’t kill people, well, at least not directly. He’s a corporate hatchet man who fires people for a living — people with bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. The job is demanding, brutal and cold — just the way he likes it. Endlessly traveling from one mid-sized metropolis to the next like the black plague — or a recession — he has no personal attachments. When asked during a mid-flight conversation where he lives, he replies, “Here.”
Bingham takes pride in his work. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but it must be done. He feels he’s providing a social service. He has no relationships, no mortgage, no nagging commitments, and even holds Tony Robbins-style self-help seminars where he explains how to unload the backpack of life. Here is a man who has found a way around all those tiresome birthday parties, anniversaries, heartaches and losses. He is life’s free agent, that is, until two women (Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga) come into his life and disrupt his carefully constructed world of personal pleasure and human detachment.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with “Up in the Air.” In fact, it can be pretty darn good at times. It’s brimming with slick direction, clever dialogue, timely social commentary and great performances. Everything about it screams, “I was made by professionals!” It is a polished, neatly packaged product ripe for mainstream consumption. And that’s exactly the problem. Everything it does, it does very well, but it doesn’t do all that much worth writing about. It’s one of those middlebrow adult dramas that’s really more glib than witty, and leaves audiences with the feeling that they’ve just watched something sophisticated, even though they haven’t. It takes no chances, makes no interesting statements and has no definable style.
Jason Reitman, hailed by some as an emerging wunderkind, is rapidly ascending the ranks of high-profile Hollywood director-hood in the same way young talents like Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) have in recent years. His first feature, “Thank You for Smoking,” was a serviceable tobacco industry satire that garnered considerable critical praise and even developed a small cult following. Its successor, the pseudo-hip teenage pregnancy dramedy, “Juno,” was the surprise hit of 2008, taking both the box office and the critical world by storm, even landing Reitman an Oscar nod for Best Director. “Up in the Air,” his third feature film, represents a newly powerful director with creative control, heavy studio backing, a substantial budget and big stars.
It’s a common Hollywood tale. This is the point where Reitman either caves under the pressure and is forever banished to slogging through the independent film world begging for private financing, or excels and solidifies his stature as a big-time Hollywood player free to make anything he wants. Well, considering that “Up in the Air” has already doubled its production budget in theatrical earnings and stirred up quite a bit of Oscar buzz, it looks like Reitman has just joined Hollywood’s playboy club. He definitely doesn’t cave under the pressure, but he certainly doesn’t excel either.