Flying Solo: The unsettling isolationism of 'Up in the Air'

At high altitudes, where the air is dry and oxygen-thin, you can rapidly become woozy and disoriented. This not altogether unpleasant sensation is also triggered by “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s heady mix of social drama, dark comedy and, figuratively speaking, mile-high romance.

Adapted from Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name, the movie (now in wide release) will prove more unsettling if you go in expecting an escapist lark. Yet this topical, witty foray into modern corporate life is more grounded and less cynical than it initially seems. No matter what your reaction to the story, the film has wonderful writing, directing and acting to recommend it.

Reitman has tapped into the zeitgeist before. “Juno,” about a pregnant, whip-smart American teen, nailed the pop culture-infused patois of contemporary adolescents, due in no small measure to Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning screenplay and Ellen Page’s performance. And his first feature, “Thank You For Smoking,” from Christopher Buckley’s novel, skewered the political correctness of coastal élites while simultaneously puncturing the gun, tobacco and alcohol lobbies.

Centered on Ryan Bingham, a “transition specialist” at an Omaha company contracted by other corporations to fire their employees, “Up in the Air” is the ideal movie for the current recession. Business is booming for Ryan, played by George Clooney. He’s a road warrior extraordinaire, logging over 300,000 miles aloft and spending 322 days of the year away from the Spartan-efficiency apartment he reluctantly calls home. His only goal in life is to earn 10 million frequent flier miles. Whereas most business travelers dread pressurized airline cabins, antiseptic hotel bars and navigating airport security lines, he relishes his routine. He obsesses over “systemized friendly touches” and getting the most out of the numerous loyalty programs to which he belongs.

When Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), an attractive, like-minded businesswoman, one evening, Reitman tastefully eroticizes their shared fetish for the perks of an itinerant lifestyle—without masking the antiseptic feel of their surroundings.  “I’m a sucker for simulated hospitality,” Alex lasciviously confesses. They begin a no-strings-attached relationship dictated by their travel schedules.

Ryan is also a part-time motivational speaker. In his “What’s In Your Backpack?” spiel, he recommends having as few attachments as possible, telling listeners to shed whatever weighs them down, especially relationships with other people. He embodies this misanthropic shark philosophy—“Make no mistake, moving is living”—and doesn’t want marriage, kids, or much to do with his two semi-estranged sisters, who live in his Wisconsin hometown. He’s gracious and polished, even gregarious at times, but doesn’t waver from his isolationist principles.

At one point, Ryan’s young colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick) excoriates him for living in a “cocoon of self-banishment.” Natalie is an efficiency expert who has sold their boss Craig (a sublimely glib Jason Bateman) on firing people remotely via Internet videoconferences. Naturally, Ryan resists since his traveling days would be over. And before the new methodology is implemented, Craig orders Ryan to take Natalie on the road and show her what letting people go face-to-face involves.

These wrenching encounters are the guts of “Up in the Air.” For many viewers, particularly those experiencing the economic downturn firsthand, watching the pain of the pink-slipped folks on screen may be too much. Following a brutal protocol meant to insulate employers from legal liability, Ryan and Natalie dismiss workers in cities across the country, dispensing a few words of canned advice along with “strategy packets” that will supposedly answer any questions. “This is what we do. We take people at their most fragile and set them adrift,” Ryan explains.

Reitman uses a few recognizable actors to portray the downsized workers, but most are played by non-professionals who have been laid-off in real life. The effect is powerful, resulting in an immediacy and truthfulness that leads the viewer to feel unmoored.

The divide between the workers’ variously irate, crestfallen and pleading reactions and Ryan’s fly-over elitism (as well as Natalie’s undiluted-by-experience, fresh-out-of-grad-school attitude) gradually shrinks, though is never bridged completely. Without giving away too much, Ryan is softened by Natalie’s growing compunction, his relationship with Alex and his sister’s wedding. To a degree, he evolves and matures.

As the story unfolds, we realize that, for all his loathsomely smooth detachment, Ryan is capable of empathy and is good at his job because he possesses psychological insight and sensitivity. He knows how to soothe and give hope to those he terminates. He accurately points out, “We leave people devastated, but there’s a dignity to the way I do it.” Late in the film, he goes further, likening himself to an angel, a glimmer of light soaring over the blighted economic terrain littered with human casualties.

The metaphor is an exaggeration. “Up in the Air” doesn’t offer anything quite as heartening as angels, but it isn’t completely bleak. A line of Natalie’s suggests a hopeful avenue: “The sooner you trust the procedures, the sooner the next phase of your life will unveil yourself.” People are essential to these “procedures.” The more you’re willing to commit to your network, your relationships with others, the sooner things will turn around.

Reitman and his co-screenwriter, Sheldon Turner, stop far short of expanding this familiar job-hunting advice into a moral that will satisfy people of faith. In fact, Ryan explicitly denies believing in any ultimate meaning or transcendent truth. The message boils down to two aphorisms in the screenplay that can seem anodyne out of context--“Life is better with company” and “Everybody needs a co-pilot.”

Nevertheless, while retaining its cynical sheen, this savvy dramedy does recognize a harsh reality beneath its own verbal dexterity and slick packaging. Likewise, it points to better conditions beyond the distress and isolation it movingly depicts. Those are two reasons “Up in the Air” will resonate across multiple divides and classes, and why it can be seen as emblematic of the decade just ending.

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Ed S
9 years ago

The film is a tragedy in which the protagonist's character damns him.   While materially his life may be the same, after the film he has lost all illusion about himself.   He engages in two acts of charity in the film but it does not seem that these are sufficient to save him from himself.  

Jay Cuasay
9 years ago

I was struck by your observation: "For many viewers, particularly those experiencing the economic downturn firsthand, watching the pain of the pink-slipped folks on screen may be too much."

I recall after September 11, one of the other recent national traumas, how long it took us to be comfortable with action movie explosions on one hand, and with letting ourselves laugh on the other. This puts us in quite a predicament, since movies have often been the consolation of escapism as well as the place of insightful therapy.

It may be true that catharsis is, as the film title suggests, left up in the air. But I thought a quote from Ryan you did not include betrays the deeper reality that all of us come to face (with or without faith or spiritual insight). He says something to the effect that you have to convince the person who has just lost their job to have the courage to let go of whatever they are holding...and then you let go of them too and leave them there.

At some point (in this case the lowest point in one's life), you are adrift and alone. Even Ryan, who is employed tries to embody this and embrace it as the alienated existential bedrock default norm. It's his way of life. But this misanthropic cynicism, or clever modern sarcasm still fails to mask, delete, or deter the transcendent nature of life-which is not as easy to capture cinematically. But it too alludes to what is UP in the air.


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