Finally, after weeks of waiting through this “limited release” crap, Up in the Air appeared in theatres. I’ve been looking forward to this film for several reasons – most notably, it’s directed by Jason Reitman (who also directed Thank You for Smoking and Juno) and okay, sue me, George Clooney’s in it. The man is too charming for words when he’s on screen. And if you haven't seen it yet, there are major spoilers in this review.
The film chronicles the life of Ryan Bingham, a “terminator” (or career transition counselor), who spends his days flying into companies to deliver the bad news about layoffs to a variety of American workers. Given the current economic recession, it’s a timely topic that most viewers will be able to identify with. In the process, he trains a young protégé, Natalie, who is the HR director you’d never want to have – completely dependent on technology as a crutch to distance herself from interpersonal interaction. He also meets Alex Goran, a charming business woman who lives a fairly nomadic existence and seems to speak his language.
From the trailers, it looked like another romantic comedy in the vein of Juno, but this film is about romance sort of like Schindler’s List was about hope. It’s incredibly cerebral. The narrative conveys an omnipresent postmodern sense of alienation in an age where interpersonal relationships are messy and untrustworthy. Clooney’s character spends the film in pursuit of flying 10 million miles so as to reach elite customer status, the underlying tone of which screams “corporate America is the only entity that values honor and loyalty in relationships!” But just as you’re drawn in by this message, Clooney is out on prowl to downsize more people, most of whom weep about their loyalty to a company and its caviler dismissal of their self-worth.
I get the sense that Reitman is maturing or becoming more cynical, take your pick. His previous efforts offer at least some semblance of redemption for his leads (though not always for his supporting characters). There is no redemption for Bingham – he constructed his life with a series of choices, all of which led him to this particular path, and when he tries to break free of it, finds there is no exit ramp. He’s trapped within the confines of an existence separated from true emotional connection, and at the end of the day, instead of offering yet another representation of a man in crisis who is able to rise above and change, Reitman says, “you can want to change, but really, you probably never will.” It's a far more realistic take on understanding ourselves as actors within a social context. I mean, who hasn't spent hours or days or years thinking about changing to find that even if and when you do make changes, those around you already have fixed perceptions of you that are outside your realm of influence?
The film also functions as a metaphor for the ways we use technology to hold others at bay by culturally distancing ourselves from “unpleasantness” in relationships through whatever means possible. The characters routinely use technology to deliver to their bad news rather than dealing with the situation in person - breaking up or quitting a job through text messages, videoconferencing with employees you're firing, etc. It says a lot about conflict resolution in an age where interpersonal skills are lacking and in a culture that is over-litigious.
Certainly, there are criticisms – perhaps the biggest being the showdown scene between Ryan and Alex. It’s oddly cut for some reason, and given the chemistry between the two actors in all of the other scenes, doesn’t quite ring true. Granted, Ryan doesn't ask a single personal question of Alex the entire movie, so you can sort of see the bad news coming - but it also doesn't make a whole lot of sense that she rearranged her schedule to go to his sister's wedding. The only thing that really saves it is that neither party is really to blame (though the film, or just Clooney's likability, seems to paint him as the victim) – Ryan is led on, so we blame Alex, but really, one could say that Alex chose him because of the person he was...and Ryan at the beginning of the film was absolutely the cute guy you have an affair with, no strings attached. One person wants to change, the other doesn't. At the end of the day both parties are to blame. Oh, and that conversation takes place over a cell phone. Not in person. Go figure.
There are also some editing issues near the end of the film that simply don't work - it seems like they cut 15 minutes that seemed like it was a good idea, but in reality probably wasn't. The scene where Jason Bateman asks Clooney about a termination that results in the death of one of the employees let go was awkward and forced. And then of course, you have the suspension of disbelief thing – 10 MILLION miles? You assume he's working in the U.S., so stays in the U.S., and at best, a flight from New York to LA racks up about 3000 miles. He's stationed in Omaha, which is about equal distance from either, meaning his average flight can't be more than about 1500 at a time, one way. So if we work with the 3000 number (being generous), and assume he flies at least one round trip a day (which isn't realistic as most of his meetings must take a day or two), he'd need a good ten years to amass that number of miles. It's within the realm of plausible, but hard to fathom at the same time. As long as you go into it knowing it's metaphorical, it's enjoyable, but if you spend too much time thinking about the nuts and bolts of Clooney's supposed job, you'll end up seeing the trees and not the forest as it were.
In all, it’s worth seeing. It will have you thinking long into the next day about the current state of our culture and wondering what choices you've made that cause alienation in your own life.