A Dignity to the Way I Do It
The most poignant images in Jason Reitman’s new film are the interview montages. First, this is practically unheard of in movies, that a montage might be anything other than dauntingly clichéd. Second, the subject matter speaks to the “fortuitous’” timing of Up in the Air: all the heads here are talking about how awful it is to be fired.
Their reactions range from horror to rage, devastation to shock. They’re all speaking, at least at first, to Ryan (George Clooney), a professional firer, called in by company execs too scared to do their own dirty work. Sent forth by his own boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), Ryan flies around the nation, leaving people with bad news and packets (“Everything you need to know is n the brochure,” he recites). In return, these victims look directly at him/the camera/you. The faces are tired, afraid, fierce. Some of them belong to non-professional actors, hired when Reitman held an open casting call for the recently fired in St. Louis and Detroit.
“I’m gonna go home without a paycheck,” says one fellow, “Fuck you.” “How do you sleep at night?” asks another. Or again, “You have a lot gall coming in here.” Ryan insists to each that this end is actually a “beginning,” while observing in voiceover that he personally likes the flying, that is, the alienation and “systemized friendly touches” that make life in perpetual transit routine—the frequent flyers clubs, the airport bars, the carry-on luggage.
Ryan’s life is all beginnings, in other words, sans commitment or completion. And that makes it bearable.
Ryan also gives motivational speeches to corporate gatherings, where he describes a backpack filled with so much weighty detritus that listeners should be eager to get rid of it. This means casting off property (Ryan’s apartment is spare to the point of resembling a prison cell, without the photos tacked to walls) and rejecting relationships out of hand. He sleeps with ladies he picks up at his talks, but he avoids phone calls with his sisters, especially Julie (Melanie Lynskey), about to be married to Jim (Danny McBride) back in Wisconsin (snowy, of course). He refuses to feel burdened by life, only skips over its surfaces, an experience represented in the movie’s repeated shots of clouds, airports, and hotel bathroom mirrors. Ryan is slick and cool and George-Clooneyish, satisfied and self-contained, if not precisely ecstatic.
He’s good at describing how he feels, his narration curt and smart, his rationales entertaining if not convincing. And then his life changes. As the economy fails, Craig announces that the firing company is rethinking how it does its work, namely, bringing in a young (23 years old) efficiency expert. Newly graduated from college and full of bright ideas, Natalie (Anna Kendrick) suggests firing people by remote, and so reducing costs. She calls the new software “glocal,” with simultaneously global and local effects.
Though Ryan’s immediate resistance to this new model is premised on his personal desire to keep gallivanting (rather than being located in one place forever), he soon lights on another, potentially more convincing rationale. You can’t fire people via video screens. Assigned by Craig to take Natalie around—so she can gain experience firing people and they might begin to test out the remote version, doing the deed from the next room—Ryan is also assigned by his sister to take around a standup of Jim and Julie, so they can have a faux record of not-being in different locations, to serve as their honeymoon memories until they can afford to take a real honeymoon.
Based on Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, the movie sets up an eventual consequence of these parallel activities that seems obvious. Ryan and Natalie discover—each in a particular way, of course—differences between reality and fiction, the value of authentic emotional experiences and oh yes, the good things about family. The lessons are reinforced when Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), an always traveling executive who enjoys non-commitment as much as he does. “Just think of me as yourself,” she advises, “With a vagina” (shades of Jerry Seinfeld’s one true love). Even as Natalie is undergoing a series of emotional complications—a fiancé who’s not exactly who she thinks he is, a job that’s even less what she expected—Ryan is falling for someone, even reconsidering all his choices until now.
As these lessons all come together, the film’s floaty, cool affect starts to come down to earth, the points and plot turning more conventional. This even while the context remains topical and complicated, and dealing with loss remains an unsystematic, difficult, and increasingly common process.