PAGE TO SCREEN: “Up in the Air” by Walter Kirn

Posted by · 9:13 am · May 21st, 2009

Cover of Up in the Air by Walter Kirn“Airworld” is novelist Walter Kirn’s term for the impermanent realm of regional American air travel, a sleek network of bland local airports and adjacent beige hotel rooms, linked by the plush grey trails of business-class flights. It forms the scattered but otherwise constant home to thousands of American corporate drones, and is the simultaneously alien and mundane setting for “Up in the Air” – soon reaching your screens courtesy of writer-director Jason Reitman and star George Clooney.

Droll, dry and ultimately rather heartless, it’s clear that Kirn (“Thumbsucker”) positioned his novel as a kind of “Bonfire of the Vanities” for post-millennial readers, a work that diagnoses the ills of corporate America and chimes in with a wider sense of social malaise.

The novel, however, had the misfortune of hitting the shelves shortly before the events of 9/11 forever shifted the rules of his own Airworld. By the time it appeared in paperback, not only had Kirn’s milieu rapidly dated, but few readers were keen to enter that territory, and “Up in the Air” never took off as was perhaps intended.

Whether by accident or design, Reitman’s adaptation of the novel also comes along at a time when the material couldn’t be more touchily topical, albeit for different reasons. Its anti-hero of sorts is Ryan Bingham, a 35 year-old human resources exec and first-class Airworld citizen, whose field of expertise is “Career Transition Counseling” – in other words, someone brought in by companies to tactfully fire employees, a self-proclaimed Grim Reaper to white-collar America.

It’s a nervy subject for a feature film in the midst of a global economic recession that is providing plenty of business for men like Bingham, if few others; but whether audiences will be any more willing to embrace this than they were Kirn’s novel remains to be seen, and will largely depend on the warmth and lightness of touch Reitman and his universally liked leading man can bring to the material.

As you can probably tell, this project should land Reitman back in the coolly satirical territory of his 2006 debut “Thank You for Smoking” – another Reitman-penned adaptation — as opposed to the cuddlier vein of “Juno.” Bingham, with his glibly smart patter and professional emotional detachment, certainly resembles “Smoking” lead Nick Naylor in more ways than one; Aaron Eckhart would arguably be a snugger fit for the character than Clooney, who is considerably older than Kirn’s ambitious post-yuppie.

It’s easy to imagine Clooney playing Bingham as one of the slick, charismatic heels the actor generally reserves for his romantic comedy work, but the character isn’t as affectless as he appears on the surface. Bingham is a mass of neuroses and insecurities that undercut his confident cynicism – among his more engaging tics is his constant, usually unsuccessful, experimentation with newfound words from a vocabulary-building program.

Less endearing, but more interesting, is the apathy that emerges in such pithy statements as “I used to try to be interesting … now I try to be pleasant and on time.” Bingham’s self-loathing stems from his disregard for his own job, and the novel covers his own final, intricately planned “career transition” mission, as he tries to sew up loose professional and personal ends over a frantic six days of back-and-forth travel.

His (and the narrative’s) eccentric goal is the accumulation of one million frequent-flier miles, a wholly arbitrary milestone at which he feels he can quit his job and begin his life anew. This entails facing up to a personal affliction that neatly – a touch too neatly, I found – gathers and contextualises his character flaws in a final-page twist that could be difficult to transfer to film, dependent as it is on the selective self-descriptions of an unreliable narrator.

That Bingham isn’t a terribly likable presence makes for an interesting challenge to the often charm-dependent Clooney, but the unreadable, if whimsical, nature of his quest could prove an obstacle for the film as a whole. A brisk, witty read in its first half, Kirn’s novel sags in the home stretch because the dramatic stakes appear to be so low, particularly with its protagonist sustaining no constant relationship in the course of the narrative.

A parade of supporting characters – clients, colleagues, seatmates, siblings – drift in and out of proceedings, but never develop distinct identities. This is likely an intentional nod to corporate anonymity, but it hampers dramatic momentum.

It’s a drawback that could be handily remedied on film by softening the acrid edges of Kirn’s prose slightly, and refashioning the material as more of a screwball comedy with a romantic streak – which the casting of Clooney and female up-and-comer Vera Farmiga suggests (to me, at least) may be on the cards.

It is Farmiga who I think has the novel’s most potentially interesting, but underdrawn, role as Alex, a young, prickly events planner whose initial flirtation with Bingham is revealed to have more complicated roots than a chance encounter in Airworld. Their liaison climaxes in a frenetic, narcotic-fuelled episode in Las Vegas where the extent of their mutual discontent is revealed, though Kirn leaves the relationship adrift.

Developing their anti-romance could reap greater emotional rewards for the film – though even in that uncertain event, the novel suggests only a breezy, slightly chilly, diversion. Unless Reitman and co-scribe Sheldon Turner significantly flesh out Kirn’s prose, the characters here might be too slight or too elusive to portend a critical or commercial sensation. Awards potential, meanwhile, seems scaled at that of Reitman’s first feature. A screenplay nod is a distinct possibility, given the smart, literate patter of the dialogue, and there could be some play in the Golden Globe comedy fields, but further prospects depend significantly on how much Reitman and Clooney warm up the tone.

It is Bingham who admits both the novel’s cleverness and its limitations in an early statement: “If I had to pick between knowing just a little about a lot of folks and knowing everything about a few, I’d opt for the long, wide-angle shot, I think.” As entertaining as Kirn’s smorgasbord of the malcontents of Airworld is, I couldn’t shake the compulsion to look closer.

1 Comment Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Page to Screen

1 response so far

  • 1 8-01-2009 at 11:21 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Kind of unrelated and totally belated, but I just wanted to say how much I love “Thumbsucker.”