Remember all those executives George Clooney fired last year in Up in the Air? Here is their story.
Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones play characters who work at an enormous conglomerate and feel confident in their value to the organization and not at all the kind of people who get laid off. That might have been true in past recessions. But they come from the heavy building side of the company. That might have been how the company started, but in the post-meltdown world it is the past, not the future. CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) explains that the future of the company is in health care, infrastructure, and power generation.
And so, “difficult decisions had to be made in situations where redundancies surfaced.” And therefore euphemisms had to used, the passive voice employed — so often the case when everyone else is pretty much unemployed.
The first to go is Bobby Walker (Affleck), a top salesman who has the bad luck to be selling something that is not health care, infrastructure, or power generation. He walks into the office bragging about his 86 at the golf course before work, and shortly after is walking out with everything in a cardboard box. Phil Woodward (Cooper), a factory guy who made it to the executive suite — and who has a daughter very excited about the senior class trip to Italy — doesn’t last much longer. And finally, the head of the division, Gene McLary (Jones), the CEO’s oldest friend, is riding the euphemism and cardboard box express, too.
It turns out that people who are fired go through the same Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages that we experience in facing death, though not exactly in the same order. In these cases, it seems to be anger first, and then denial. They may skip bargaining and go straight to depression. And not everyone makes it to acceptance. Bobby goes from “I can’t let anyone know I lost my job” to “I need to look successful” to “We can’t leave our home,” to accepting the sequential blows of his wife’s return to work, moving back to his parents’ home, and asking the brother-in-law who always needles him about the big shot life for a job helping to put up drywall.
Writer/director John Wells (television’s “ER”) has a good feel for the corporate world — the analyst meetings in hotel ballrooms, the Wall Street jargon, the CEO pay packages. And he has a television writer’s economy for evoking the range of situations and emotions. While he also has a television writer’s feel for structure, he seems locked in to television drama’s three-part storyline, just too conventional, predictable, and neat, especially in the last half hour. It comes down too hard on the facts we all know too well, the imperial CEOs (with pay 700 times that of the average worker), the difference between what is legal and what is ethical, the difference between building something other than figures on a balance sheet, the “real people” honor and generosity of the people who get their hands dirty literally rather than metaphorically.
It’s the small details and moments that work best in this film. The layoffs come to people with busy lives predicated on keeping jobs they once thought depended only on ability and integrity. Everyone has an event to attend; everyone has a lovely house to pay for. Gene comes home to the gleaming surfaces of his gracious home and peeks at the five-figure price tag on his wife’s new table. Phil is told by a cheery but frank “outplacement” counselor that he should remove “ancient” references like service in Vietnam from his resume and dye his hair. There’s an understated moment where the brother-in-law (a fine Kevin Costner) shows that a real leader puts his workers first. Rosemary DeWitt can convey more about her understanding and support in putting lotion on her legs than most actresses can do with a page of dialogue. And the movie delivers the message that the workforce is not all that gets downsized; so do dreams, hopes, plans, pride.
Parents should know that this film has frequent strong language, drinking, smoking, suicide, tense family confrontations, and a mild marital sexual situation.
Family discussion: Who is responsible for creating this problem? How is affecting your community?
If you like this, try: “Up in the Air”