Unemployment Gets a Lift in 'Up in the Air'

City Pulse | November 30, 2009
George Clooney's intentionally ambiguous character Ryan Bingham is a poster boy for America's lack of ethical direction in this thought-provoking satire about America's unemployment epidemic. Unfortunately, this film fails to swing its hammer of simmering revolution hard enough. Smarmy Ryan loves his city-hopping lifestyle -- he loves collecting frequent flier miles -- doing paid gigs as a motivational speaker with a cynical message. He also works as the number-one hatchet man for an outsourcing company that lays off employees for big companies. Wanting neither marriage, kids, nor commitment, Ryan happily slips into a low-key affair with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a flight attendant who shares Ryan's shallow worldview -- at least on the surface. A big snag appears in the form of upstart corporate spitfire Natalie (Anna Kendrick), whose attempt at making Ryan's job obsolete with the use of video conferencing transforms the ambitious-but-callow Natalie into Ryan's personal traveling trainee. Based on Walter Kirn's novel, the reliably humorous script is co-authored by Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman. After making Thank You for Smoking and Juno, Reitman attacks socio-economic satire with a combination of verite sequences, light slapstick, and earthy sex appeal. The movie finds its level whenever Reitman's camera depicts the outspoken responses of people being fired from jobs where they've toiled for years. The film seems to say, "It's okay that we're all losing our jobs, because it will invariably lead us to our own individual bliss."

2009 was the year of "altitude" at the movies. Jonathan Glatzer's miserable What Goes Up, the Disney/Pixar winner Up, and even Sam Mendes's insufferable Away We Go prepped audiences for Up in the Air as the last bit of optimistic helium in the year's metaphorical filmic tank. Its opening credits are full of aerial shots of snow-blown mountains, manicured farm crops, and all sorts of skylines. Reitman conveys a palpable sense of spending more time floating above the ground rather than on it for our constantly roving protagonist. Ryan starts his motivational speeches by convincing his audience of corporate drones to imagine putting all of their lives -- every household possession, including car and house -- into a backpack that holds them stagnate like a gigantic anchor. However, Ryan tells his audience that "relationships" are the things that weigh them down the most. This particular bit of emphasized information clashes sidelong with the heartbreaking faces of the people that Ryan sends off into limbo everyday when he dispassionately fires them from across a characterless desk with a carefully worded formula designed to numb the process. The recurring straight-to-camera montages of people resisting expulsion from their careers, characterizes the country as a systematized machine made for ruining people's lives.

The film's most fascinating aspect is the way the filmmakers contrast the material's contradicting emotional elements. We like Ryan because he's a perpetually upbeat smooth talker who, in spite of his decisively awkward job, is clearly operating inside his comfort zone. Like Aaron Eckhart's silver-tongued character in Thank You for Smoking, Ryan is a master of spin who briefly disguises harsh realities with a toothpaste smile that never falters into the shit-eating-grin that logically lurks behind the brilliant facade. We know Ryan is a scourge of society, but at least he's a "professional." One of the film's defining scenes takes place between Ryan and Natalie when he invites her to "fire" him during a heated discussion about her idea to reinvent the company's workflow with long distance video conferencing. In seconds, Ryan reveals her incompetence, and defines the chasm between his comparably humane approach to personally pushing people into the abyss of unemployment.

Up in the Air is poised as Oscar-bait, and the performances from Clooney and Farmiga are some of the best from Hollywood in a year of paltry films. The movie generated big buzz at the Telluride and Toronto festivals, but it remains a picture of shiny surfaces and flimsy metaphors. Just because Ryan carries out his sister's wedding wish of taking photos of the couple's cardboard image front of various national landmarks, doesn't function as well as the screenwriters imagine toward incurring anything more than corniness. However, the film makes unmistakable the cheesy curtain of capitalism and the knife that hides behind it. In Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski briefly flashed the eyes of the Devil during the satanic rape scene. The image sticks in audience's subconscious and has a way of popping up days after seeing the film. In Up in the Air, the faces of laid off employees come back haunt you. For modern capitalism, the workers are the devils waiting to be damned to hell by the "nice" man at the gate. You'll like him; he's played by George Clooney.

Rated R for language and some sexual content. 109 mins. (Paramount Pictures)
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