Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, based on the novel Up in the Air by Walter Kim
Cinematographer: Eric Steelberg
by Jon Cvack
Up in the Air is about business, particularly 1) the crash of ‘08 and 2) the effects of technology. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) fires people for a living. What you might not recall, or possibly didn’t notice, is that he probably doesn’t get paid all that much. His entire life fits into his suitcase, inspiring a motivational talk that seems to be leading him toward a career as a Professional Speaker. Clooney’s delivery of his ‘Backpack Monologue’ is spoken with such conviction and charisma that I think we also forget how absurd the entire idea is, which is essentially professing that relationships, like bags, should be discardable at a moment’s notice. And yet beyond Ryan’s minimal life and his display of success, he also lives in a one bedroom, hardly furnished apartment, thus providing significant insight as to why the man is so obsessed with rewards, as he doesn't have much beyond them. In the end, I suspected that the Ryan Bingham from the novel is more Paul Giamatti from Sideways than the World’s - once - Most Desired Bachelor. I’m impressed by the depth George Clooney’s character takes on, but I also think Clooney's public image taints the character. Unfortunately, he exudes too much status and wealth, when, in fact, he probably has little of either, receiving more satisfaction from the travel and speaking events than women and wealth (though I could be wrong; perhaps he has money and never spends it and all 10 million miles he coveted was simply a goal, but this makes little sense).
Having been in college when the film was released, and having been laid off from a job unexpectedly, I never really grasped what the movie was exploring on the first viewing. Clooney's charm is so powerful and argument so compelling, that as he offers words of advice to the now unemployed - such as J.K. Simmons (see below) - I found myself switching sides, feeling less bad for the workers, and more inspired by Bingham's job, as in many ways he's helping these people. It's an odd feeing as we watch Ryan completing the task with his elegant, well rehearsed method, accepting that perhaps it is better for a Professional Firerer who understands ex-employee sensitivities to carry out the task rather than a Boss or HR Department, which grows even more complicated as we learn that Bingham's company now wants to save the money flying their staff around the country, transitioning into fancy Skype sessions, where employees can be terminated by the same people via a live stream. The fact that I found myself in fierce disagreement with this development, even though the entire operation precludes any form of decency to begin with, was strange, especially as Reitman includes real, actual people who had been fired either playacting the event or discussing the effects throughout the film. I wasn’t sure how I was suppose to feel in the end. On the one hand, Ryan served a decent purpose. He was completing a task based on the love of the work, and yet, he was still opting to do the job that no one else would ever take on, and so we’re rooting not for these employees, nor for the boss to let go of them in a respectable manner, but for Ryan to retain his methodology at risk of getting replaced by fresh college grads going through a computer.
While a prescient movie the ending is mildly predictable. From the moment you know about the 10 million mileage goal and his sister’s inability to travel due to financial hardships it’s not too difficult to connect the dots from A to B. And yet one thing we didn’t see coming is his relationship to Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who, while seeming passionate about Ryan, is discovered to have been living a fantasy, with a husband and kids back in Chicago. I’m not sure why, but I recalled this moment happening so much earlier in the story, and yet it more or less concludes the film. It’s a particular moment of heartbreak that's significantly diminished by knowing he’ll of course take the rest of his miles and give them to his sister and her new husband. I suppose it highlights the alternative lifestyle that individuals desire when traveling away from their families half of the year. It offers the possibility of a double-life, in many ways no different in its alienation toward others than Bingham's job. There was something just a bit too clean about it, though. As though Alex Goran had to have been caught just to avoid an overly sentimental, classic rom-com ending where the two reunited and decide to settle down. And thankfully so.
I do find it hard to believe that after going to his sister’s wedding and discovering via some new technology that his job is, after all, dehumanizing, thanks in large part to some idealistic college grad that Ryan would suddenly change. Did it really take this simple combination to create a decent enough look at the self? I’m not sure what else would have done it, but a few ideas would have been someone closer to Ryan and/or his attitude having actual consequences rather than removed or hypothetical ones. I would love to see this film played with a much more 'every man' Ryan Bingham, rather than mega-star Clooney. He does a great a job, but it falls victim to the public image tainting who I think the character should have been.
Still a great film.
BELOW: J.K. Simmons stealing the film with only a three minute part
Thoughts on films, old and new
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