FILM REVIEW Andrew M Brown Up in the Air
15 CERT, 109 MINS
44 Inch Chest
18 CERT, 95 MINS
As the corporate downsizer or, rather, “transition counsellor” Ryan Bingham in Jason Reitman’s new comedy Up in the Air, George Clooney is serenely heartless as he flies from city to city firing people. Actually, the rule is never to say “fire” – “letting go” is preferred. Bingham’s victims may fall apart, but each time he assures them that “this is a rebirth”.
Bingham’s job means that he lives out of airports and hotels and the view from his window is always of the built-up outskirts of cities like Dallas and St Louis. But this is exactly how he likes it. As he narrates: “All the things that you hate about travelling are warm reminders I’m home.” His personal philosophy, which he expounds from time to time at corporate seminars, involves travelling with as little baggage as possible. When we do get to see his apartment (in Omaha), it turns out to be a bare white room divided by a concertina partition. It’s not made clear why, but Bingham has an almost pathological fear of attachment. He has family, but hasn’t been involved with them for years – as we see later in the film when they reunite to celebrate his sister’s marriage to bumbler Jim (Danny McBride).
Two events intervene to disrupt his settled life. First, he bumps into Vera Farmiga in a hotel bar. Farmiga (who played the sexy psychiatrist in The Departed) exudes confidence as Alex Goran, a frequent flyer in the same mould as Bingham. They bond, deeply, while comparing corporate loyalty cards. Come to think of it, they’re obsessed with “loyalty” in that valued-customer sense – Bingham aspires to build up 10 million air miles, just for the heck of it – but don’t bother with it in their personal lives. Alex is a female version of Bingham, an intelligent woman with a similar liking for hedonistic fun stripped of emotional commitment. If anything, he’s the one left looking needy and wanting something more substantial than occasional link-ups booked via text message.
The second disturbance to his routine is more worrying. It comes from head office in Omaha: Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), his boss (he is amusingly hard-headed about what the recession means for his company – “this is our moment”), has hired a trim little whipper-snapper named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Her job is to implement a “Glocal” (Global/Local) strategy that involves, essentially, sacking people “via iChat” with no need for aeroplane travel. By this means, perky Miss Keener explains: “Our inflated travel budget is eviscerated!” It looks as though Bingham’s footloose way of life is itself about to fall victim to recessionary downsizing, until Craig asks Bingham to take Natalie, who’s a rather mouse-like ingénue, on the road and show her the ropes.
Up in the Air is of the moment and well-acted, with a quick-witted script, based on Walter Kirn’s novel, by Reitman (who at 32 has already directed Juno and Thank You for Smoking) and Sheldon Turner. If one wanted to quibble, one could point to the rather too neat transformation of Bingham’s character. All in all, though, it is a thoughtful picture and it provides many straightforward laughs as well. Take Bingham’s handy travel tips: when queuing at airport security, he advises Natalie, always stand behind Asians – never old people or families with children. Asians “pack light, travel efficiently, and they’ve got a thing for slip-on shoes, God love ’em”.
Also out this week is 44 Inch Chest, an interesting British film about Cockney gangsters from the writing team behind Sexy Beast, Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and directed by Malcolm Venville, who comes from commercials. It begins stylishly as the camera pans across a smashed-up living room in which Ray Winstone’s hefty frame lies supine as Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” plays in the background. He’s not dead, but only having a mid-life crisis. He is Colin Diamond. He runs a garage dealing in Jags and other prestige motors; presumably he’s a gangster. That evening he arrived home with a bunch of flowers and his wife Liz (Joanne Whalley) confessed she’d found someone else – a waiter – and wanted out of their 21-year marriage.
Winstone doesn’t take it well. He’s a tremendously watchable actor and you see his face go through childlike denial, dribbling self-pity, to murder ous rage. Colin and his friends kidnap the waiter, take him to a house in the East End and threaten him with extreme violence.
Mostly we see Colin unravelling. There is something inherently dramatic about seeing a big man weeping and having a panic attack. His colleagues – Mal (Stephen Dillane), Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) and Archie (Tom Wilkinson) – find the spectacle soppy and want to get on with the violence. But though their language is aggressively profane and the soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks) implies menace, the promised “justice” keeps getting postponed.
The cast enjoy themselves. Hurt, with protruding false teeth, adopts the cantankerous style of Wilfrid Bramble as Albert Steptoe. Ian McShane is a highlight as Meredith, an eloquent, gay gangster, recalling a part he played in 1971 as companion to Richard Burton’s mother-fixated crime boss, Vic, in Villain. This is an actor’s movie, highly theatrical – most of the action is filmed in one claustrophobic room – and with the sort of wordy script that actors relish. They’re a talkative bunch of gangsters. The script is intelligent enough; the trouble is, after a while one does start to wonder where it’s all going.