[18 December 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Life is all about connections: the meet and greet; the interpersonal ‘hook-up’; the professional (and private) networking that brings about common bonds, unbreakable attachments, and meaningful links. For Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), professional “downsizer”, it’s also about the break-up: the firing; the career reassignment; the unending cycle of cowardly CEO’s and mealy-mouthed middle managers unable to face up to their responsibilities and terminate their employees personally. A veteran of these emotionally and psychologically unnerving events, he has become an island in the middle of a massive economic malaise, a sole martyr for the “human touch” in job that’s desperate to depersonalize and detach.
So when a young upstart named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), fresh out of college and eager to make a name for herself, suggests that Bingham et.al be brought in from “the field” and forced to eliminate workers via Internet connection, our old war horse is livid. Not only does he find the notion of separating oneself from such one-on-one interaction appalling, he’s not ready to settle back into a standard life. You see, Bingham enjoys travel - the ease of movement, the personalized corporate perks, the goal of earning millions of frequent flyer miles. What he doesn’t want is anything remotely related to his own life - friends, family, or one night fling.
Thus the stage is set for Jason Reitman’s amazing, accomplished third feature, Up in the Air. Adapted from a novel by Walter Kim, and focusing on what happens when Bingham and Keener hit the road to revamp the whole system, to retrofit the once joyless job of eliminating positions into something more progressive (and perhaps, more painless), this is one smart, sensitive dramedy. Their clash is just the beginning. The rest of the film revolves around the pair playing off each other, exposing weakness while learning more about how the other views the world. It’s wide-eyed optimism vs. grizzled ego, novice naiveté vs. the kind of clarity that can only come from years of on the job training.
In the world of comedy genre, this is not screwball - it’s screw-up. Clooney is the sage, the worldly wise mentor who can’t see how sad his own lonely life is. Kendrick is the up-and-comer, the kid believing she’s a revolutionary when she’s actually just digging from the inside out. With no real experience in the trenches, she will learn why unemployment via a T1 line is just not possible. With the real threat of never being able to travel again, our hero must stumble onto the most miserable of truths - he is alone, lost in an endless wandering of his own design and desire. Even when he meets someone who could be special (Vera Farmiga), his own twisted perspective reinvents the time spent as something it’s not.
The love story which weaves in and out of Up in the Air‘s otherwise impossible corporate gloom and doom maxim is sweet and reserved, sexy without being promiscuous or perverse. Clooney and Farmiga have an adult chemistry, one derived from being accomplished and shrewd, not horny and unhinged. All throughout their interactions you sense oasis, a chance for two overworked and underappreciated people to escape in the embrace of each other’s physicality. You also understand why Clooney’s character goes too deep. For the first time, ever, he has found something akin to a soulmate - someone who “gets” his life, who feels his need for professionalism and polish, who also views the airport and the Econolodge as home away from home (or in most cases, home period).
All of these elements interact and intertwine into one of 2009’s best experiences, a narrative highway where every mile represents another revealing rest area, where each conversation pushes us closer to our formidable final destination. While there are few supporting players outside the main cast, Jason Bateman does very strong work as Clooney’s clutch buck passing boss. Similarly, familiar faces like Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons show up as recently “retired” workers. Reitman pulls a fast one, however, inserting sequences of real people losing their jobs among the actors and actresses, and it’s devastating stuff. Unlike the 24 hour news cycle that likes to spin and sputter the truth about our current economic clime, Up In the Air sells it straight: it hurts , and it is scarring many along the way…Clooney’s Bingham included.
Indeed, the reason this movie works and works so well is that it’s not afraid to embrace despair. It’s not ashamed of showing loneliness and isolation as valid personality choices. It argues about the nature of being, about why we need people (Bingham’s motivational speeches sometimes center directly on this concept) and why we occasionally toss them aside for life elements more tactile. Reitman sets us up for epiphanies and then delivers pain and regret instead. When Bingham decides to visit his family for the first time in quite a while, it’s under the guise of “doing the right thing” (his sister is getting married). When pressed into serving as arbiter between potential spouses, he shows exactly what he is made of - and why what happens in the end is so patently unfair.
That’s because unlike the service to and from a major airline hub, or the preprogrammed and packaged presentations that come with being confronted by Bingham (including handy “career reevaluation” packet and instructional guide), relationships are not certain. They don’t promise on time delivery or step by step rehabilitation. Instead, they are messy but meaningful, occasional bliss usually followed by the solemn slap in the face of truth. It’s nothing Bingham wants, and yet Up in the Air constantly reminds him that it’s a significant gap in who he is. This is a man with no roots. His mostly empty apartment near the home office houses a few changes of clothes and some basic furniture. He’s never really settled down, believing it impossible or impracticable. And risky - so much so that when and if he falls for the dare, it will be a long tumble downward.
It’s not a stretch to call this film a Greek tragedy where the flawed figure in the middle of all the turmoil is actually right. No matter what befalls him, Bingham is 100% correct - at least for himself. It’s rare to get such an assured individual, especially in a creative realm where all protagonists are supposed to be strong and all villains evil. In this case, Up in the Air serves a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Ryan Bingham is a bad guy by paycheck. He lowers the boom when others are too frightened or flustered to do so. But he is also empty, a shell filled up by meaningless goals and one too many paths crossed.
If Up in the Air ends up as 2009’s best, it won’t be because of its filmmaking (which is nearly flawless, by the way). No, this movie will be remembered for celebrating that rarity of rarities - self-determination. Ryan Bingham is a man who knows himself, for good and bad. We are then asked to take him or leave him. Either decision delivers one of the year’s best and most probing cinematic experiences.