What happens when a man who fires people for a living is on the brink of being made redundant himself? Jason Reitman, who’s given us gems like Thank You For Smoking and Juno, will have us sympathising with another character on-screen we would love to hate in real life.
In Up In the Air George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, an executive whose job is to fly across the country firing people on behalf of employers too lily-livered to do it themselves. The airport is Bingham’s ‘home’: he loves his in-transit life, enjoying both his physical and emotional isolation. In an economic environment in which companies are laying off more and more people, Bingham is in high demand and has constructed a moral system in which it is ok for him to terminate others with some respect and sympathy and always absolute emotional detachment. He also gives motivational speeches — ‘What’s in Your Backpack’ — which encourage people to reduce the baggage in their lives, both material and emotional. His personal goal is to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles — not to redeem them but as a status symbol which means that he’ll get to meet the captain and have his face emblazoned on an airplane.
So far so good. The first change in Bingham’s life comes when he meets a beautiful executive in an airport lounge. Alex Goran — played by a radiant Vera Farmiga — is basically a female version of Ryan Bingham and the two begin a casual, no-strings-attached relationship.
But Bingham’s life takes a turn for the worse when ambitious young Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) devises a cost-cutting plan for the company that Bingham works for. Keener’s bright new idea — “It’s only a problem if you have a solution,” her boss tells her — to fire people through webcams rather than taking expensive, timeconsuming cross-country flights threatens to undercut Bingham’s way of life, perhaps even his utility to the company.
When Bingham unsurprisingly opposes this propostion, his boss suggests that he take Keener on his next firing trip. Anna Kendrick, sheds the persona of giggly gossip Jessica Stanley from Twilight and exhibits serious acting chops as the feminist who accepts a dodgy job that doesn’t justify her talents just because she followed her boyfriend to Omaha. Some of the best moments in the movie come from the two strong female leads. While Keener obviously admires Goran’s successful career-woman front, there is an undercurrent of criticism in her understanding of the older woman’s failure to have a marriage and family. To Keener, at 23, marriage and family are as important goals as a career.
“I don’t want to say anything that’s anti-feminist. I really appreciate everything your generation did for me,” she tells Goran. “But sometimes it feels like no matter how much success I have, it’s not gonna matter until I find the right guy.”
This movie is an emotional journey (pun intended) in which enigmatic and inaccessible Bingham re-assesses his philosophies, but it is a curiously level and circular one. Clooney’s role seems tailormade and if some of his tabloid persona seeps through, it only lends the role more depth. Reitman does a remarkable job of depicting the anxiety, frustrations, and survival instincts that have surfaced in this downturn. At the end of the day, the movie is unsatisfying, because the questions it throws up elude easy answers, but at least it has the intelligence to ask them.