Up in the Air review by Jackass Tom

Up in the Air’s main character, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), is a preacher of sorts and his message is “free yourself by removing attachments.” There are two groups of people who listen to him. One group pays to hear him give his Tony Robbins-lite “Whats in your backpack?” speech in conference halls and hotel breakout rooms. Essentially the backpack and its straps get heavier on your back as you fill them with items in your life and the main idea is the people in your life are the heaviest items in your backpack. He is also works as a professional layoff consultant (AKA, the guy who lays you off if the boss can’t handle it). In his layoffs sessions, he “frees” employees from the commitment to dead end jobs whether they want to be freed or not and hands them a package that has all the answers to their future. Occasionally he offers his sage advice, “What did you REALLY want to do before you took this job 15 years ago?”

His advice is more than just rhetoric; it’s his way of life. Bingham has shed emotional attachments with family and friends. His apartment is one bedroom with minimal furnishings and is rarely slept in. He travels over 300 days out of the year to layoff employees all over the U.S. His home is every airport terminal and closely located hotel. Credit cards and gold/platinum club membership points are his only currency. One night in a hotel lounge, he finds his female equivalent in the form of Alex Goran (purrrr, Vera Farmiga). Their form of flirting amounts comparison of perks, exclusive memberships earned, and double-entendres related to the size AA frequent flier miles. Much to Bingham’s delight, their sexual encounter comes with no strings (or straps) attached.

It’s not clear what lead to Bingham’s monk-ish lifestyle, but one possibility could be the nature of his job. He delivers difficult news to complete strangers who react in a variety of ways (most of the time ‘anger’) so it is in his own interest to be dehumanized. Like a member of the military, he has to be able to shoot his target precisely and not think about that person’s life and familial attachments in order to get his job done. The reactions from his victims are a backdrop for the film; most of them were even shot in a documentary style with real people who were laid off “reliving” their layoff moment.

Bingham’s minimalist standard of living is challenged by his tightly-wound, work horse understudy Natalie Keener (played very effectively and comically by Anna Kendrick) who has her own life and attachments planned 20 years out. The irony of Keener is that not only does she verbally challenge his idea of ‘no associations’, but she also unknowingly attacks the mode that allows his nomadic lifestyle by introducing a work plan to minimize corporate travel through online layoffs (a move that could ultimately lead to Bingham not only being grounded in Lincoln, Nebraska but eventually laid off).

Up in the Air’s director, Jason Reitman, does a good job of balancing the mood in the film to match Bingham’s. There is a slow but noticeable erosion of his ideals that has a lot to do with the pacing of his editing. In the film’s opening, he has a self-righteousness that is backed up by his actions. As he zips around the airport and narrates a layoff you feel his Bingham’s comfort. But as the viewer you can see pieces of that slipping away as the film progresses. First the threat of not traveling disrupts his life as he knows it. He feels at home in the airport and in a hotel and now he may be grounded. All of a sudden his empty apartment feels more empty (with a few slower moving cuts). Even as he travels his time on the airplane is lonelier than before. If these hints weren’t enough to hit home the theme of “its better to have family than isolation,” Reitman shows a series of interviews with people who have been laid off with the running theme of, “I may not have {BLANK} but I have my family.”

It’s conceivable that Ryan Bingham could be thought of as the character in this past decade that best represents the 00s, at least business-wise. He is completely dehumanized and has shed all personal attachments so that without a conscience, he can make a living by taking away other people’s employment. In a decade filled with layoffs and ending with a recession, its hard to get that character out of your mind, let alone the real thing. Up in the Air isn’t a movie that will leave you with a smile on your face, but it does reflect some sort of truth about the way we live.

9 out of 10 Jackasses
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