High As A Kite – Up in the Air

If ever there is one film I would be proud to have in my own filmography, this would be one of them.

That was the very sentence I had in mind once the film finished. As the credits rolled, with the music sounding very pleasant to my ears, with the somewhat-open end given to us, the relatively-unorthodox story still fresh in my mind, the script brimming with life and smart comebacks…this is the kind of movie I really want to make.

I also hope to make people laugh out loud with brilliantly lame lines such as these: “Do you want the cancer?” asks the stewardess. Surprise from Bingham. “The what?” The stewardess then holds up the can of soft drink. “The can, sir.”

She wondered how much gel he uses.

Ryan Bingham (portrayed here by George Clooney, and NOT the Academy Award-nominated singer of the same name) is a high flying, high living…people firer. His job is to basically fly all over the country, and fire people on behalf of the companies who are not too keen on doing the dirty job themselves. He does this with brevity, with an air of cool, with charm and confidence (the director said that Clooney was picked because if you were to be fired, you probably wouldn’t mind him doing the firing). He also does motivational speeches on the side. On top of that, he is well on his way towards earning ten million frequent flyer miles, while he had just met a beautiful woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who lives and enjoys the same kind of lifestyle that he does.

Of course, what goes up, must come down. His office decides to institute a new programme that allows them to fire people remotely, via the Internet, rather than having to do it face to face (interestingly, as a cost-cutting measure, a similar reason as to why people are getting fired up and down the country: “Don’t blame me, blame the rise in fuel.”) The young lady who came up with the programme, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), is then assigned to Bingham by his boss (Jason Bateman). He isn’t particularly happy about that, our Ryan, and the displeasure was clearly shown the first time they traveled together. As she struggled being held up at the security clearances, he made his unhappiness rather clear. Of course, once she’s all settled in, she realises that the world of firing people is not really the science of textbooks, but an art to be perfected, to be worked on.

Thomas Cook's latest ad campaign was pathetic.

Speaking of art, as I researched about the film, it turns out that the people used in the firing scenes were mostly people who had recently been laid off. They were interviewed specifically for the movie, and was then given a few minutes to re-enact the moment when they were fired. In that sense, they were given the chance to exorcise some ghosts, and to say what they really, really wanted to say at the time, but couldn’t. Pushing the boundaries between the art of documenting and the art of fictional storytelling, it made for some absolutely compelling moments in the film that was very, very powerful. “How do you sleep at night, man?” one of them started. A reaction shot of Bingham and Keener was shown, before we cut back to the man in question. “How’s your family? They’re sleeping well at night? Electricity still on? Heat? Do you have a full refridgerator? Gas tank? Going to Chucky Cheese this weekend? Not me. No, my kids…we’re not going to do anything.” You could try, but it’ll be difficult to replicate such emotions within the confines of scripted lines.

Getting back to the point, Natalie doesn’t do too well with this situation when she finds out that the real world of firing people isn’t quite small little dots and lines to be connected together in neat pie-charts. She has a near-breakdown, and her character shows a lot of external changes compared to many of the rest within the film (it doesn’t help that the person she is firing didn’t quite follow the script. “There’s this beautiful bridge near my house…I’m going to go jump off it”). Vera Farmiga, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the same amount change, but she did play her role with spunk. I’ve rarely used that word before, whether in real life or otherwise, but somehow I find it to be truly and utterly appropriate. “Think of me as a version of you…only with a vagina.” I’m reminded, somewhat, of Penelope Cruz in ‘Nine’. 🙂

Unbeknownst to her, he had asked DiCaprio and Damon for hints.

The big star here is undoubtedly George Clooney. There’s something rather intriguing about the man. I can quite figure him out. In many ways, he seems like the perfect star. As a celebrity (God, what a horrible word), he’s not often seen in the back or front pages of tabloids. Whenever he did make his way in there, it’s probably got something to do about situations in Sudan and the like. As an actor, though the phrase may well have been used to describe him before, he’s like a type of wine: he merely gets better with age. He oozes charisma with each and every role, and it’s no different here. In many ways, his character is someone who in so many ways is a grade A asshole. He was dismissive of Natalie for encroaching into his territory, and he has air of arrogance about him (“Check it out, the promotions are great,” he says, handing an irate hotel customer a leaflet as he cuts in via his Gold status something-or-other). He is quietly delighted with the news that a big car company is about to lay off more of their workers; as his boss puts it, “Christmas came early.” He judges people very quickly; at the airport security checkpoints, he deliberately lines up behind the Asians because the families will take too long, old people are annoying, and Middle Easterners will be pulled over for “random checks.” Asians, on the other hand, are “packed light, travel efficiently and they’ve got a thing for slip-on shoes, God bless them.” “That’s racist,” came the somewhat predictable reply from Natalie. “I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s a lot faster.”

And yet, he is very human in many ways. He believes in what he says, and to a certain extent, he advocates his life of solitude to other: “Some animals were meant to carry each other. We are not those animals.” However, he does it without preaching. He patronises without hurting. He charms without a hidden intent. And therein lies the secret of his likeability: his sincerity. As Natalie struggles to deal with the job, he comforts her, and does so again as she encounters problems with her own relationship. He may not understand why his sister wants a picture of herself in places she’s never been to, but he gamely abides by her wish. George Clooney has managed to take a character who, in the hands of another actor, may well have been somewhat worthy of a tight slap. In his hands, however…he really did become the person who you wouldn’t mind firing you.

Until now, he still thinks he could have been a better Batman...

Speaking of his sister, his solitude is put to the test when he finds out that she is getting married (to a character played by Danny McBride, someone I last saw getting shot in the ass in ‘Pineapple Express’). He is somewhat forced to take a cardboard cutout of the happy couple to take all over the world. Though initially he didn’t quite understand it, it comes to fruition that perhaps a lonely life without someone to call his own is what he didn’t really want, after all. The metaphor of the frequent flyer miles is absolutely apt for this, to showcase the fruitlessness of it all. When it became the goal rather than a bonus to be enjoyed, it does wind up being little more than a bunch of numbers: “You’re basically saving to save.” The ending itself also lends to some personal interpretation that we can make of our own accord. Was it a positive one? Was it a happy one? What was the meaning of his last lines in the film? I see it as the positive culmination of what became a rather emotional journey, but you might see it differently.

I laughed at all the jokes. I felt for the people who were fired from. I felt just as much for the people doing the firing. Within the current economic context, there’s plenty of relevance to be gleaned from this film. I think the script is complex without being overly complicated, with a snappy editing style and nice music to listen to. I think this film, being set within the context of breaking off relations with people we don’t think is no longer of any use to us, became something about trying to maintain the very relations that we may already have.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: I wish I had made this film.

Fikri now thinks he can safely list Jason Reitman, alongside Christopher Nolan and the Coen brothers, as someone who doesn’t know how to make a bad movie.

6 thoughts on “High As A Kite – Up in the Air

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