Contemporary Hollywood has steadfastly avoided the workplace—unless the jobs are particularly glamorous (Broadcast News, The Devil Wears Prada), or the workers unfairly exploited (Silkwood, North Country) or the fodder for gallows humor (the Mike Judge oeuvre). And so there’s an immediate and ingratiating novelty to the fact that so much of Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air unfolds in cubicles and conference rooms in nondescript office buildings in Wichita, Kansas City, and other outposts of the great American in-between. Likewise, the people Up in the Air finds there are neither the laugh-tracked eccentrics of TV sitcoms nor Michael Moore’s congenitally oppressed proles. They are, rather, the white-collar career middle-managers, useful but ultimately inessential to their employers, who believed they had jobs for life—until a tough economy rendered them expendable. They may not be the stars of Up in the Air, but they are what gives the movie its soul.
It’s into these fraught environs that Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) enters. A hatchet man for hire, contracted out to companies too timid or short-staffed to do their own firings, Bingham’s business booms while everyone else’s goes bust—a cruel reality that Bingham packages in a series of bright-side bromides imploring the newly unemployed to see the glass as half full. “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now, and it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it,” he assures with such conviction that we can’t tell if Bingham actually buys what he’s selling or has simply been doing this for so long that his bullshit detector needs new batteries. Those on Bingham’s receiving end—many of them played by actual laid-off workers Reitman cast via classified ads—are less than fully persuaded. How, indeed, to make lemonade out of lemons when there are bills to be paid, mortgages to be kept up, mouths to feed? Bingham, conveniently, doesn’t stick around long enough to grapple with the aftermath, having already hopped on a plane to his next destination, taking refuge in the skies.
The title of this road-movie-at-20,000-feet, liberally adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, describes Bingham’s literal and existential condition—a metaphor it (thankfully) carries as lightly as its newly anointed Oscar front-runner status. Past 40 and single, with a nominal home he rarely visits and sisters he rarely speaks to, Bingham has no more lasting relationships in his personal life than he does in his professional one. And rather than showing Bingham (and us) the error of his ways, Reitman’s film views its protagonist as an avatar for an “age of communication” that provides us with so many ways of being at once everywhere and nowhere, of maintaining human contact from a cautious remove. Bingham craves the impersonal touch, having eschewed conventional notions of home and family in favor of attaining ever more rarefied strata of airline and hotel customer rewards programs—a life of plastic membership cards and plastic smiles that Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg capture with all the anodyne sheen of a high-end TV commercial (while cramming the screen with all manner of corporate logos—Hilton, American Airlines, et al.). At least Bingham still puts stock in the old-fashioned, in-person kiss-off, whereas his efficiency-minded junior colleague (the scene-stealing Anna Kendrick) is developing a model for making their work a strictly virtual affair: termination via teleconference.
By far Reitman’s most accomplished film to date, both in terms of craft and its stealth avoidance of typical Hollywood flight patterns, Up in the Air is not (early indicators to the contrary) a redemptive fable about a soulless corporate shill who gets his comeuppance by seeing how the other half lives, or by falling into the arms of a good woman. For starters, Bingham is less of an oily have wreaking havoc on the have-nots than he is just another guy doing an unpleasant job, a cousin of sorts to the law-firm fixer Clooney played in Michael Clayton. And when romance appears, it does so in the form of a literal fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga) who isn’t so much Bingham’s salvation as another way station. “Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” she cautions, every rat and tat of Reitman and Turner’s snappy dialogue rolling off her tongue with acerbic precision. A resourceful actress heretofore held prisoner by heavy melodrama and histrionic horror shows, Farmiga makes a terrific foil for Clooney, who, not surprisingly, wears his naturally charming, commitment-averse character as comfortably as a second skin.
Conflicts arise; some are resolved, others left in limbo. The movie itself plots a journey that moves in an elaborate zigzag only to end up very much where it began, with Bingham once more staring out into the wide blue yonder and wondering, Where do I go from here?