To the list of the biggest lies of all time (“The check is in the mail,” “I’ll still respect you in the morning,” etc.) this must now be added: “All the answers are in your packet.”
No, they aren’t. Many answers are in the packet you get handed after someone tells you that your position at work no longer exists, but they do not tell you anything about the questions you care about most: Will I get another job? How will I pay my bills? Did anything I did here mean anything at all?
Most people in that position will not be asking questions about the person who is handing them the packet, but “Up in the Air,” based on the novel by Walter Kirn, he is our hero. Close enough, anyway, as he is played by George Clooney, whose sleek movie star glow and perfect tailoring give his character a surface perfection that contrasts with his struggle to hold onto his freedom and make sure nothing holds onto him. For him, being a professional brought in by corporate management to fire people in massive layoffs is the perfect job, each relationship with an almost-immediate ending.
Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who is most at home away from where he lives. Even the most generic of hotel rooms has more personality than his apartment, too personality-less even to be considered spare. The 290 days he spent on the road last year were the ones where he felt most connected, most authentic, most at home. In his apartment, he feels rootless. What he loves about travel is the thousands of micro-encounters, all encapsulated into tiny predictable pieces. His affinity points at hotels and airlines gets him an extra “Nice to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” with a smile as fake as Bingham’s assurances that the answers are in the packet. But it is the very fake-ness of it that makes Bingham feel at home because he understands it and it understands no more about him than he wants it to.
At one point in the movie, his sister, who is about to be married, sends him a cardboard cut-out photograph of herself with her prospective husband so that Bingham can take pictures of it in different locations for a scrapbook they are creating instead of the honeymoon trip they can’t afford. Reitman creates a nice, understated contrast between the artificiality of the “travels” by the cardboard duo and Bingham and his fellow road warriors.
Bingham is not the first person and certainly not the first movie character to think that he can get through life with maximum efficiency, with as little weighing him down or holding him back as possible. He has systems for maximizing momentum and minimizing inertia from a small group of impeccable and virtually identical suits to the formula for getting the most out of frequent flier miles. When he finally meets a woman (Vera Farmiga) who speaks his language — their flirty banter about who has more prestige points and which hotels have the best amenities is more delicious than a warm chocolate chip cookie at your check-in — part of what makes it fascinating is that neither Bingham nor the audience can tell at first whether this is just one more frictionless encounter or a connection that will make him re-think his attachment to being unattached. Farmiga matches two-time Sexiest Man Alive Clooney’s rhythms perfectly, and watching these two glossy creatures circle and parry is one of the great cinematic pleasures of the year.
In one respect, Bingham harks back to the iconic American cowboy, alone in the wilderness. In another he is the essence of 2009, in the one sector of the American economy that is benefiting from the catastrophic avalanche of failure that will forever identify the end of this milleneum’s first decade. Co-screenwriter/director Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”) shrewdly puts Bingham in the middle between his tantalizingly silky no-strings counterpart and a spooky, Scrooge-like vision of another aspect of himself. A young, ambitious newcomer (a superb Anna Kendrick) to his office has an idea about how to save money by being even more ruthlessly efficient. Why do all that flying when you can fire people by video chat?
Reitman continues to populate his films with characters we want to know better and actors who make even small parts into gems of poignancy and meaning. Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman, and J.K. Simmons are irresistible, but there is also a mosaic of reactions from the newly terminated that is even more unsettling when you find out that these are real-life survivors of lay-offs, recruited by Reitman for what they thought was a documentary about the impact of the economic crisis. And be sure to stay through the credits for another telling real-life moment.
“Up in the Air” is very much of its time but it is also one of the best films of the year for its sympathetic and layered understanding of the issues that affect us in good and bad economic times and its recognition that it is here, in these stories, where the questions left unanswered in the packet are explored.