December 23, 2009, - 3:38 pm

Mid-Week Box Office: Clever, Entertaining “Up in the Air” (But Also Depressing)

By Debbie Schlussel

I’m finally allowed to review “Up in the Air,” because it debuts in Detroit theaters, today. (The rest of my movie reviews will be posted tomorrow and after Midnight on Friday Morning.) And it’s among my top 10 or 15 movies of the year (will post that list, next week).


The Jason Reitman-directed movie is funny, clever, and entertaining.  But it’s also depressing.  That’s because it’s about people who fire other people for a living.  And in this economy, especially during this holiday season, that’s hard to watch onscreen, since we see it every day in the current economically depressed situation throughout America.  It’s definitely not a “cheerful holiday movie.”

Watching old men get fired and cry–knowing they will struggle to find another job as they, themselves, note–is hard.  And it seems very real, as cold and harsh as the real-life terminations that happen across America every second of the work day.  I found that unsettling for a movie (since movies are supposed to be an escape from hard realities of real life, not intense recreations of them).  Still, the rest of the movie was entertaining and there are some great lines in it.

You can bear smug uber-liberal George Clooney in this movie because he essentially plays–and mocks . . . himself.  Clooney is confirmed bachelor and master termination expert, Ryan Bingham.  Companies hire him and his employer (his boss is Jason Bateman) to fire their employees, because they don’t have the guts to do it themselves.  It’s cold, it’s harsh, and he feeds the now-terminated employees total BS lines he knows are fertilizer about how this is the “beginning” of their lives, will help them realize their dreams, etc.  Soon, though, he finds himself with a young protege (Anna Kendrick) who is equally as cold and who has developed a firing technique in which employees are fired over a computer screen.  It’s harsh.

Bingham spends most of his time on the road flying around to these termination sessions and, in his free time, lecturing at New Age empowerment psychobabble seminars from his silly book, “What’s in Your Backpack?”  And since he has no permanent or special woman in his life, no close friends, and no tight relationships with immediate family members, he lives his life aiming to score elite status on various hotel and airline frequent customer cards.  Eventually, he meets a woman (Vera Farmiga), who is the female version of him.  She wants no commitments and also aims for ultimate status at hotels and on airlines.  They begin an affair and he finds himself suddenly pining for something more than an empty life of sleeping and flying around, where he is all alone and everyone else has moved on with living life.

And that’s when he realizes that life as George Clooney is actually a meaningless, empty life with no real purpose on the planet. A shallow, barren shell with no there there and lots of nothingness. Even his job, at which he excels, is mean and turns people’s lives upside down.

So, if you don’t like the real life George Clooney, you’ll like this onscreen commentary that his life really isn’t all that.

Best scene/dialogue:

George Clooney is at an airport speaking to his protege Kendrick at the security checkpoints. He talks about how to make things faster and save time while traveling. He surveys the families, the old people, and other people in line whom he says make things slow. Then, he spots some Japanese businessmen going through one line.

Clooney: Asians–they pack light, travel efficiently, and they’ve got a thing for slip-on shoes.

Kendrick: That’s racist.

Clooney: I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster.

The movie is a little top-heavy on off-beat music and soundtrack, trying a little too hard to be hip. But other than that, it was okay.

Like I said, I didn’t enjoy the firing scenes, in particular a scene in which an old man is fired by computer in Detroit and starts crying.  It made me wanna cry.  But the rest of the storyline is entertaining and enjoyable.  And, frankly, it’s a great statement on the emptiness of those who devote it all to their careers and eschew family and morality and that special “something more” we should all seek in life.


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13 Responses

With movies portraying such a dark commentary on our society for peoples perusal and enjoyment, then the reality of government usurping total control of societies every need it reminds me of other movies and their display of society in the future like The Terminator, Robocop, Predator II, Escape from New York and others. I feel with the governments takeover of our lives this is the reality we have to look forward to just like Russian society for the past 100 years, it just took this long for us to get there. I’ve been saying this is our destiny for the past 30 years.

seahawker on December 23, 2009 at 4:11 pm

This is obviously a movie that has an ultra leftwing agenda to show how cruel and cold corporate America can be. Since I am a capitalist whore, I find this movie’s premise offensive. Anyone that finds this movie entertaining is sick.

Smokey Yunick on December 23, 2009 at 5:00 pm

I still hope that among your reviews will be “The Princess and the Frog.” I liked the movie. I think you will too.

Ghostwriter on December 23, 2009 at 5:00 pm

For some reason I don’t mind George Clooney, he’s very good actor. I still can’t stop watching Burn After Reading.

seahawker on December 23, 2009 at 5:04 pm

I too am priveleged and too lazy to carry around any guilt complex.

Spenser Hofbrau III on December 23, 2009 at 7:42 pm

“Yeah, I’ve got a meeting with the Bobs later.”
“I…didn’t hear of any meeting.”
“They called me at home.”

Count me among the “Office Space” faithful. The Bobs crack me up.
A melodramatic movie about firing people? Goats who stare at pink slips? I pass for now-maybe when the DVD comes out and a friend lends.

Douglas Q on December 24, 2009 at 1:43 am

I have mixed feelings about Clooney, I don’t think his apparent smugness is intentional or who he really is, he just has a way of projecting that kind of ‘I’m so cool and handsome and the Cary Grant of my generation’ kind of thing ’cause in a way he is cool and handsome and the Cary Grant of his generation. Can’t be helped.

Debbie the purpose of movies is not solely escapism. Hardly. Movies are an art form (or that is one thing that they are supposed to be) so really they are about reflecting life and harsh realities, telling u something about ourselves. Saying the purpose of movies is about escapism from harsh reality is like saying that the function of art (I mean painting and sculpture) is escapism and the function of literature is escapism!! which would be garbage of course. Why should films be soleley about or even predominantly about escapism, but not art and literature? this is an absurd thing to claim. It’s simply nonsensical. The best movies have never been about escapism, in fact if movies are just about escapism then I have no interest in them. One of the problems with Hollywood is that it makes such crappy escapist fare. Was Casablanca escapism, Apocalypse Now, The Hurt Locker, Taxi Driver, the French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, The Pianist, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest etc etc? All the best films are anything but escapism. Sheesh.

Larry on December 24, 2009 at 4:38 am

    Hi Larry,

    You are right of course that most of the best movies aren’t about escapism. BUT, this movie isn’t being billed as a hard drama, rather a romantic comedy. If you have ever been through a layoff and seen coworkers crying putting their stuff in a box as a thug security guard leads them out, you won’t find this stuff funny.

    Personally I wish they would make a real drama about our disposable society throwing loyal employees out the door like trash after they hit 50. Watching the C-level folks retire early and live like kings and the people who worked hard and played by the rules all of their lives forced to work at Walmart or Mcdonalds……hmmm….paging Michael Moore….

    jimmyPx on December 24, 2009 at 10:41 am

I hated Up in the Air. It’s a heavy-handed, unfunny attempt to critique so-called heartless capitalism. Leads Clooney and Vermiga are attractively watchable and charismatic, yes, but all the supporting roles (particularly Bateman, Kendrick and the niece’s fiance) were flatly overdone and unappealing. You mentioned, Debbie, that you found the “hip” soundtrack unpleasant; to me all the folk guitar-heavy background grated like nails on a chalkboard. This is Hollywood brat Jason Reitman’s third direction. First he made the obnoxious Thank You For Smoking which humorlessly bashed amoral corporate ethics; then he made Juno which promoted unwed pregnancy as a diverting lifestyle choice. Now he makes this reprimand to capitalism which becomes increasingly unbelievable and sappy when it finally turns into weak romance. Clooney reprises his role from Michael Clayton(and Aaron Eckhart’s from Thank You for Smoking)–the unenlightened, personably attractive yet cool-hearted business type who gradually awakens to the emptiness of his life (don’t you know all capitalist hired guns are just waiting to discover how empty their corporate lives are?). I wish Hollywood brats like Jason Reitman and Sophia Coppola would stay away from direction–immersed in Hollywood values since birth, they can’t really help themselves. Incidentally, von Trier made a MUCH richer and funnier movie(The Boss of It All) based on this movie’s main premise.

After watching Reitman’s unfunny, poorly scripted and directed film, I saw the Chipmunks Squeakquel, and though it was broadly lowbrow and targeted to children of age eight (not their parents), at least it had no political subtext–so I left the theater in a good mood. Furthermore the music was far preferable because bouncy and not self-consciously “hip.”

Burke on December 24, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Not funny? Who said that’s in particular funny? Well, it might be somehow, but I don’t know if this movie is a comedy. (To be fired is a theme in some comedy stories.) The fact that some people are firing people for a living is however equals fredom and market economy, which is what makes an economy strong.

To make that less possible is socialism.

Complaining about that seems to me a bit anti-market economy. Btw, I’m just complaining because you accused someone of lying, which he obviously didn’t, and which was not possible according to your own accusation.

Magnus A on December 26, 2009 at 10:53 pm

I worked as an engineering management consultant for about a year and I hated it. The travel sucked, and though I didn’t directly fire people my purpose was to evaluate manufacturing processes,and suggest efficiencies which would ultimately end in head cutting.

Obviously nothing wrong with improving/leaning processes, but the politics associated with who is let go was in many cases absurd. In many situations those who should of been let go weren’t, and the better employee was released.

Incidentally these were non union shops.

The movie was more interesting than the book. The screenwriter essentially ignored the book.

Tom Hobbs on January 1, 2010 at 11:08 pm


Your quote “since movies are supposed to be an escape from hard realities of real life, not intense recreations of them.” is at every turn further from the truth.

True some movies are supposed to be light fun and escapist. But others are intended to convey a visceral, sometimes painful, emotion. Thats the beauty of movies. The director is conveying an emotion to you, that he hopes you feel. Movies that invoke suspense, anger, frustration, fear and sadness shouldn’t be discredited as a good movie because it made you feel uncomfortable. I would the Passion of the Christ is a good example of an intense recreation of life, but still a good movie.

Joel Morenz on January 11, 2010 at 12:03 pm

This is the single worst movie I have ever seen. Yes, it evokes emotions…like utter depression and disgust for some human nature and the corporate world. I made the mistake of watching it two weeks after getting laid off from my job of 19 years and I cried for three hours. Other friends (still gainfully employed) said they were depressed for DAYS. I’m not saying that all movies should be pleasant, but I’d rather swallow rusty nails than watch or recommend this movie to anyone, ever. There is nothing funny about this movie unless you are completely heartless. There is nothing funny about layoffs, heartless people and cheating spouses. The only thing that can be said about this movie is that is has an element to depress virtually every member of society.

L on March 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm

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