Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jason Reitman | Up in the Air

by Douglas Messerli

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (screenplay), based on a novel by Walter Kirn, Jason Reitman (director) Up in the Air / 2009

One of the reasons that many people do not like to travel by air these days is the utter impersonality of the trip: the blandly imposing air terminals filled with rushing figures who are herded into lines where they are half undressed and released into the hands of mechanically-smiling stewardesses who hurry them into cramped little spaces where they are discouraged from moving until they reach their destination. Even assembly-line workers might experience more variance. Yet this anonymous world is just what the hero of the dark comedy Up in the Air desires. As Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is described by several women in this film, he is a "man-child" with a phobia for interpersonal relationships. Marriage is clearly not for him. His big goal in life is flying enough miles to receive American Airlines' Ten Million-miler Executive Titanium card. At occasional motivational speeches Ryan teaches people how to travel light, to unload their backpacks, not simply of personal belongings, including their houses and cars, but to free themselves of friends, family, even their husbands and wives:

The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving
is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live
symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans.
We are not swans. We are sharks.

As a hollow man, Ryan has, perhaps, the perfect job: he and the company for which he works fire employees for "for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves." Day after day, he destroys people's lives without giving it a thought.
Ryan's own home back in Omaha, a place he visits only a few days each year, is a dreary one room apartment with nothing in it except a table, some chairs, and a bed. He lives for the most part in planes, hotel rooms, and bars.

Into this perfectly empty world comes a fellow-shark, the beautiful, witty, and wise Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who seemingly shares the same purposeless passions of Ryan. A minute or two after meeting in an airport bar, they are slapping down airline, hotel, and car rental cards, comparing brands and privileges. The size of Ryan's annual airline miles is quickly turned into a sexual pun, and two rush off to bed with, evidently, several successful rolls in the hay. They seem perfect for one another, clicking open their computer itineraries to determine where and when they can next meet.

Back at the Omaha homebase Integrated Strategic Management has just hired a young Cornell graduate, Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick) who convinces her boss that a less costly and more effective way to lay-off the thousands of employees they process each year is to use the internet. For Ryan, of course, this is not only a major job change but a life change, one, we fear, he cannot manage. He convinces his boss and the inexperienced Natalie that before they transfer to the new system she needs to actually know what it is they do, in other words, how to manage people losing not only their livelihoods but their purposes in life.

Suddenly the film transforms from a dark statement about a hollow man, to a comic road film, as Ryan takes to the air with his new trainee who not only has no clue of what she is about to encounter but cannot even pack lightly for the trip. The experienced Ryan empties her suitcase as easily as he has his motivational backpacks, but he has a harder time in convincing this eager, highly committed young girl that his life has meaning.

The process of education is more than comic, however, as we gradually come to perceive that there is some kindness and even purpose in Ryan's man-on-man firings. At one point when an employee just fired painfully asks how will he be able to care for his children, Ryan answers that he should seek a job doing what he truly wants to do, become a chef for which, according to his resume, he had originally trained. Others are encouraged to see their lay-offs as new opportunities. The dozens of firings we witness are even more difficult to watch when one knows that many of the people were actually real workers only recently laid-off because of our current economy.

Natalie's attempt at firing is less successful, as an older Black woman, upon the young girl's offer of the severance packet, responds that she knows what she'll be doing; "I'm planning on jumping off a bridge near my house."

No matter how distressful their encounters are, however, it becomes clear that real human beings are better bearers of bad news than machines. When Natalie finds out that her boyfriend has left her it is through a text message, to which Ryan quips "It's like being fired over a computer."

In the midst of Natalie's sorrow Alex reappears, and Ryan and her calm things as Natalie intimately discusses her goals in life, the more seasoned pair assuring her that her goals will change. When the older duo announce they plan on crashing a tech convention party, the young girl joins them, and together the three, along with a young man Natalie meets, have a great time, with the audience now strongly rooting for the Ryan's and Alex's budding relationship.

The next day, however, teacher and student are ordered to test out the screen method. A beefy Detroit worker breaks down into tears upon hearing the news, and Natalie is forced to firmly send him on his way. As we watch him leave a nearby room and walk down a hall beside them, we witness her turning away so as not to be seen. What was previously done openly and honestly is now something from which she must hide. Summoned to return to Omaha, the two fly off to continue their work via computer.

The experience of working with someone and the growing pleasure of being with Alex has somehow changed Ryan while altering the audience's perception of him. He suddenly switches his plans, rushing off to his younger sister's wedding in Wisconsin, taking Alex along for the ride.
When on the day of the wedding the young groom suddenly gets cold feet, Ryan is enlisted to talk him into continuing with the affair, a bit like asking an undertaker to help with a childbirth.
Yet the brother who has steered clear of his sisters for most of his life, comes through, convincing the young man that life is only meaningful when it is shared with someone else. The wedding continues with a growing sense of romance developing between Alex and a now more vulnerable Ryan. This time when Alex leaves him on her way to Chicago, we can sense, for the first time, his utter loneliness.

Back in Omaha the computers are up and running, workers using their peers to test the new system. Again Ryan bolts, this time hurrying off to Chicago. The formerly hollow man is nearly desperate, we sense, to fill up his life, to entangle himself with everything he has formerly rejected. The woman who comes to door is called from within by a child and a husband. Alex's backpack is already too full for her to share anything more than one night stands.

A lawsuit has just been filed. The Black woman who threatened suicide has jumped from the bridge and died. Nathalie herself is fired, the computer program cancelled. Ryan is ordered back into the air, a man free to continue his job moving from city to city without even having to come up for air. But the man sitting in first class—whom, it is suddenly announced, has just flown enough miles to receive the 7th American Airlines' Ten-Million Miles Card—is someone else, a man with a heavy heart. "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over," muses Ryan in the closing monologue. For him moving has, at last, become living, while he has become one with his vehicle of motion.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2009
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (January 2009).

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