Every American should see Up in the Air. It’s a brilliant dark comedy, ultra-contemporary, full of chuckles from the gut and heart-tugging insights. Alas, most of the people whose stories pulsate through the movie can’t afford to see it. They’re unemployed.
Rakishly handsome Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a man on the move. All the time. He spends more than 322 days a year travelling the country as a “termination engineer.” He fires people for bosses too chicken to do the unpleasant task themselves. In these economic times, business is booming.
Day after day, Bingham tells employees their jobs are “no longer available.” While the stunned workers stare at him in shock, he intones the ultimate coup, “Don’t take this personally.” Then he hands them a severance package booklet and a reminder to clean out their desks immediately and not talk to anyone on the way out. Bingham is proud of what he does, considering that his rehearsed responses and soulful looks prove he is a compassionate man. After all, he explains, when people are fired, they’re “up in the air” about their future.
Bingham loves being a road warrior. He maintains a bachelor pad in Tulsa where he gets his mail. He eats fine meals on the company dollar. His sex life is charmed with willing airline attendants. He always jumps to the front of the line at the airport because he travels light. In fact, when he’s not firing people, he’s giving a motivational speech entitled “What’s In Your Backpack?” that extols the virtues of having nothing—and no one—in your life to weigh you down.
Two remarkable women disrupt his complacency. Alex Gorman (Vera Farmiga) is the Alpha Female of Bingham’s fantasies—a gorgeous light packer, coolly independent, sexually turbo-charged, as repartee-enabled as he is, and equally fond of the VIP perks of the frequent traveler. In their quickie meet-ups, and a touchingly sweet family wedding weekend in his hometown, Bingham begins to think that maybe Alex and he could have matching backpacks.
But back at the office, all is not well. Bingham is horrified to find that he, and every other wandering axe-man, is being grounded. A tight-lipped Cornell MBA in a swinging ponytail named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has convinced boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) to reduce the costs of firing people face to face by doing it a more efficient way—via computer screen. Like any first-timer, Natalie hasn’t the foggiest idea what it means to be fired from a job you’ve worked hard at for years, to be banished from your “tribe,” and left adrift with your income and your pride smashed to smithereens.
The boss makes Bingham take Natalie on a cross country termination expedition to show her what really happens when people get fired. She sees people plead, grow enraged, break down and even threaten suicide—all kinds of real reactions that aren’t described in her cost-efficiency flow charts. The more people Natalie fires, the more she realizes Bingham’s pride in his work is a sham, evident of his “being in a cocoon of self-banishment.”
Stung by Natalie’s accusation, Bingham sets off on an unwise journey to find his authenticity. Will the Frequent Flier Everyman attain salvation? Or will his two Wise Women lead him to a crash landing?
In his two previous films, Juno and Thank You for Smoking, director Jason Reitman told small, edgy stories with universal appeal. In Up in the Air, he tackles a weighty theme—the grief of the growing numbers of unemployed workers—by draping it in a lightweight mantle of wit and romance. The brilliance of the tale is its exquisite balance between comedy and tragedy. Like ribbons blowing back and forth in a gentle breeze, the transitions in Up in the Air between what is amusing and what is painful are so seamless that you might not ever be able to tell the difference.