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Up in the Air (2009)

WARNING: UNCOMMITTED SPOILERS

Halfway through Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) explains the delicacy of firing people, and thus putting them between jobs, this way: “We are here to make limbo tolerable.”

Bingham is good at this because he enjoys limbo. He lives in limbo. The previous year he was on the road 322 days and in a voiceover he tells us that everything we hate about travel he loves: the recycled air, the bad sushi, and, mostly, the lack of connection. The other handful of days he spends at the home office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he stays in an apartment that has the blankness of a motel room. There’s nothing unique about it: no pictures, mementos, nothing that says Ryan Bingham except for the fact that there’s nothing that says Ryan Bingham. Bingham gives self-help seminars, too, across the country, entitled “What’s in your backpack?,” where he tells the audience to imagine everything they own in a backpack (photos, dishes, couches, cars), and to feel the weight of all that on their shoulders; then he encourages them to burn it all, starting with the photos. He tells them to do the same with their relationships, tossing in a joke about not necessarily burning them, but adding a warning that those relationships are the heaviest things they own. Life is better, he suggests, by traveling light and alone, as he does. He’s Nathan Zuckerman without the angsty Jewishness. He’s happy.

He’s also a prick.

On the one hand I liked it: a Hollywood movie makes their main character a truly unlikable person. His job is to travel around the country and fire employees at companies where the bosses are too cowardly, or too uncaring, to do it themselves. And he’s good at his job. “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now,” he says to the distraught, the broken, the angry. “And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it,” He tells people that this is their chance to follow their dreams. It’s a smart ploy. Most of us wound up working at places we didn’t imagine, doing things we don’t enjoy. The subtext of his message is: You and I both know I’m doing you a favor.

But at this point in the story Bingham seems too smarmy and self-assured to be good at his job. Even in the act of firing people, he still has that small George Clooney smirk on his face. One wonders why he hasn’t been busted in the nose yet.

Soon he and all the other corporate downsizers are called back to the home office at Integrated Strategic Management (ISM), where they’re introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a business-school grad, who’s come up with two strategies to increase efficiency and profitability. The first strategy will take Bingham off the road; the second will downsize him.

ISM’s biggest expense is travel. So why not, in the Internet age, fire employees remotely? There’s a logic, and a kind of horror, to it. The act of firing someone is inhumane. Companies make it moreso by having a stranger do it. ISM makes it moreso by having a stranger do it remotely. One wonders where the inhumanity will end.

Not at her second strategy. For a century businesses have tried to figure out how to replace the skilled (and compensated) with the unskilled (and uncompensated). This strategy, in fact, may well define American business in the 20th century, and it’s a morally bankrupt, bottom-line, and, I would argue, dead-end strategy. And now it’s Natalie’s. Bingham has a skill. He knows what to say to keep the newly fired as calm as possible and get them out the door. So Natalie works on a flow chart, which can be given to the unskilled, who can then they say what Bingham would have said. At a fraction of the cost.

In this way employees would not only be fired remotely, and not just by a stranger, but by a stranger working robotically off of a flow chart. Its inhumanity makes Bingham seem humane. Which is why we begin to warm to him.

Fortunately Bingham demonstrates to Natalie, in front of their boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that she knows nothing about firing people. Unfortunately Gregory sends the two on the road together so she can learn. Basically Bingham will teach Natalie what he knows, she’ll translate that knowledge to the flowchart, and Bingham will become expendable. Another reason we begin to warm to him.

The two meet bickering and continue bickering, with Bingham, the older and more articulate, always winning the day. Their greatest arguments are personal, not business. He successfully argues against marriage as another unnecessary connection, the heaviest thing in that backpack (“All the arguments and secrets and compromises...” he says), and she seems distraught, comically distraught, that she can’t defend it. In a lesser film the two would get together but thankfully we hardly get a glimmer of that here. She’s got a boyfriend—we see them briefly kissing good-bye at the Omaha airport—while he’s got a fuckbuddy, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a female version of himself whom he met in Dallas earlier in the film. There’s a great scene where they compare and contrast gold cards as foreplay. “We’re two people who get turned on by elite status,” she says.

In a Miami hotel lobby, Natalie finally breaks down, sobbing that her boyfriend broke up with her via text message (“That’s like firing somebody over the Internet,” Bingham deadpans), and collapses into Bingham’s arms—just as Alex arrives for another session. Instead the three gets drinks and talk over relationship expectations: Natalie’s (high) and Alex’s (low). They talk about settling or not settling. In Natalie’s description of her ex, one senses, not the love she argued for earlier, but a grocery list of positives she wants in her cart. Jason Reitman nicely refuses to underscore the point.

Then they crash a company party, where they drink, dance, go out on a boat, get stranded. They arrive on the beach at dawn with their pantlegs rolled up carrying their shoes. Bingham and Alex begin to seem like a couple. They begin to act tender with one another.

In his travels Bingham’s got his eye on a prize: 10 million miles, and super-elite status, on American Airlines. He’s also recently carting around a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiancé, so that, like the gnome in “Amelie,” or like Flat Stanley, they cutout can be photographed against various famous backdrops. It’s a cute thing for their wedding. Bingham photographs them, grumbling all the while (what a thing for his backpack!), but, as he warms to Alex, he warms to the charms of the task; and when the wedding approaches, he asks Alex along.

Used to super-elite status, these two acquiesce to the humbler digs of this northern Wisconsin town. He reconnects with his sisters, shows Alex his old high school hangouts, and talks the fiancé, who gets cold feet, into commitment—a first. It changes him. So much so that in Vegas, giving his usual self-help seminar about the backpack, he smiles to himself, abruptly leaves the podium, and hops a flight to Chicago, where Alex lives. He’s ready, as the film’s poster says, to make a connection.

All the while I’m thinking: Really? This is it? This film, which I’d heard so much about since the Toronto festival, and which is a clear front-runner for best picture, is going to take a guy who’s nasty and make him nice, empty and make him full, single and make him en couple?

Cue record-scratch. Because when Alex opens her door she’s surprised but not in a good way. Then we see kids running up the stairs behind her. Then we hear a voice calling out: “Honey? Who is it?”

And I’m thinking: Niiiice.

A second later I’m thinking: Wait. So why did Alex act the way she acted in Miami and Wisconsin? Like she was falling for him? It could be that I misread her, as Bingham misread her. She wasn’t concerned he wasn’t interested; she was concerned he was. I’d have to see the movie again to suss this out. At the same time it’s undoubtedly true that, since Miami, Bingham and Alex became less raunchy fuckbuddies than charming couple. Which is movement away from what Alex supposedly wanted Bingham for.

On the return flight he gets his 10 millionth mile; it feels hollow. Then an employee that Natalie fired, backing up a threat, kills herself, and Natalie quits and her program is dismantled. Bingham is on the road again. But is this what he wants? Can he acclimate others to limbo if he no longer enjoys it himself? One of the last shots is Bingham, at the airport again, staring up at the arrivals and departures board. It makes us think of all of our arrivals and departures in life—not only with jobs, friends and family, but our ultimate arrivals and departures—but it’s something we’ve never seen Bingham do. He always knew where he was going before.

“Up in the Air” is a good, smart movie that’s getting the traction it’s getting because it’s timely. Unemployment, in the wake of the Global Financial Meltdown, is at 10 percent, and this is a movie about firing people. In fact, except for a few semi-famous faces (J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis), the faces of the fired, explaining their feelings abut being fired, are the recently fired. “The filmmakers put out ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as a documentary crew looking to document the effect of the recession,” IMDb tells us. “When people showed up, they were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them.” A good touch. A moral touch.

The movie also has smart, sharp dialogue. It’s a movie for adults. I laughed out loud when Natalie began her initial presentation to ISM employees: “If there’s one word I want to take with you today it’s this: GLOCAL.” Only at a company where everyone is worried about keeping their jobs would everyone not laugh at that. But I’ve heard worse in real life.

Should the movie have focused more on Natalie’s second strategy—replacing the skilled with the unskilled—or would such a focus have inevitably gotten too preachy? I suppose it’s enough that it’s dramatized. In the end, Bingham’s skills at downsizing aren’t downsized. His boss tells him, “I need you up in the air,” which is where the movie, appropriately, leaves him and us.

—December 6, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard