Ryan Bingham’s job and the attitude it inspires can be summed up pretty succinctly.
“You’re going to go home tomorrow and make more money than you’ve ever made in your life, and I’m going to go home without a paycheck.”
“Up in the Air,” based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Walter Kirn, does an ample job of exploring the depth, and subsequent void, created by the corporate world in the human psyche.
The film, released in December 2009 and directed by Jason Reitman, opens with various members of the “newly unemployed” venting to Bingham, a messenger-of-occupational-doom-for-hire played by George Clooney, pronouncing their anger, fear, and utter devastation at the sudden loss of their financial security amidst such hard economic times.
Not that Bingham has a particularly hard time with that.
In between ending the careers of a seemingly endless pool of unfortunate souls, he lives a life devoid of almost any meaning other than to reach the coveted ten million mile mark, a feat only achieved by six others. As he puts it, “more men have walked on the moon.”
He has a systemized way of living. Keep possessions and sentimentalities to a minimum, and always travel light. To him, relationships and emotional connections are just unnecessary baggage in a world that demands efficiency. Everything is precisely calculated to speed up the life process; he has his packing routine down pat, he makes sure to always get behind Asians at the airport security line (“I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s faster.”), and he never, under any circumstances, gets into anything emotionally complicated.
In one of his occasional motivational speaking gigs, he sizes up the totality of his personal philosophy: “The slower we move the faster we die. We are not swans, we’re sharks…let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?”
Of course, Bingham does not stay this way forever. His disillusionment with his business begins with a new arrival at the office.
Upon his return from his trip, he finds his company “revolutionized” by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), an up-and-coming Cornell graduate seeking to make her mark early by streamlining the company’s firing methods. In an effort to streamline spending and increase numbers, she developed a fire-by-ichat method, keeping the process simple, quick, and almost entirely impersonal.
Bingham’s objections are his first real hints at humanity.
“What we do here is brutal and it does leave people devastated, but there is s a dignity to the way I do it,” he said.
Keener’s new idea is just the beginning in a string of startlingly realistic examples of how the world has grown increasingly impersonal. When Bingham is forced to show her the ropes of the downsizing business and take her with him, her longtime boyfriend breaks up with her over a text message. As the trip continues, the stresses of coping with such a lifestyle take their toll. In one scene, she sits alone looking absolutely desolate in a room full of empty computer chairs, ones that belonged to dozens of people she just fired only hours ago.
A sense of emptiness and unfulfillment arises throughout the film. As Bingham and Keener await one flight, they stand in front of the massive windows of the airport, looking insignificant and alone.
Things only really change for Bingham when he meets his match in Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a status-addicted travel junkie who, just like him, lives to fly. They begin a casual relationship, yet clearly want more of one another. It is a little hard to believe Goran when she proclaims herself “the woman you don’t have to worry about.”
As the liaisons continue he allows himself to recognize his growing feelings for Goran, he begins to fill his life and make it more meaningful. He attends his younger sister’s wedding instead of blowing it off, going so far as to take Goran with him as his date. Everything seems to be turning around; he introduces a nice woman to his family, he shows her his old high school. In an incredibly ironic gesture, he talks his future brother-in-law out of having cold feet on his wedding day, saying, “Life’s better with company.” It’s around this time that Bingham truly allows himself to be human.
Unfortunately, as in life, it’s not all smooth-going once he makes a decision to better himself. In a shock similar to the emotional ruin felt by those he’s fired, he discovers that Goran is married with children. Despite the obvious connection between the two, she sees what they have as no more than a fling. As she puts it, “You’re an escape. A parenthesis.” After this blow, the accomplishment of reaching the coveted ten million mile mark is empty and worthless because he is, he sees, alone in what should be a moment of happiness and celebration.
Only one man could have made this role so appealing. While Bingham does have moments of great humanity, there are times when he, were it not for Clooney’s quiet humor and innate charm, would be otherwise unbearable as a person. The entire cast gives capable performances, especially Farmiga, who does an incredible job of being simultaneously appealing and despicable in her behavior.
Overall, this is a great and watchable film. The acting works on all levels, especially the one-on-ones with the fire-ees (cameo from Zach Galifianakis from “The Hangover”). Reitman uses simple yet effective cinematography to further Bingham’s sense of isolation and fleeting moments of togetherness, and dialogue that manages to be heartfelt without sounding cheesy.