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John P. McCarthyFebruary 01, 2010

At high altitudes, where the air is dry and oxygen-thin, you can rapidly become woozy and disoriented. This not altogether unpleasant sensation might be triggered in viewers by Up in the Air, the director 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 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.

Centered on Ryan Bingham, a “transition specialist” at an Omaha company contracted by other corporations to fire their employees, “Up in the Air” is an 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 apartment he reluctantly calls home. His one 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.

When Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), an attractive, likeminded businesswoman, one evening, Reitman tastefully eroticizes their shared fetish for the perks of an itinerant lifestyle—without masking the antiseptic feel of their surroundings. 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, advising listeners to shed whatever weighs them down, especially relationships with other people. He embodies this misanthropic, sharklike 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 is 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 the idea of firing people remotely by way of Internet videoconferences. Ryan resists, since his traveling days would then be over. But before the new method is implemented, Craig orders Ryan to take Natalie on the road to show her what “letting people go” face-to-face involves.

These wrenching encounters are the guts of “Up in the Air.” 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. Here Reitman uses a few recognizable actors to portray the downsized workers, but most are played by nonprofessionals 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 fresh-out-of-grad-school attitude) gradually shrinks, though it is never bridged completely. Eventually, Ryan is softened by Natalie’s growing compunction, his relationship with Alex and his sister’s wedding. To a significant degree, he evolves and matures.

As the story unfolds, we realize that for all his arrogantly 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” does not offer anything 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 itself.” People are essential to these “procedures.” The more you are willing to commit to your network, your relationships with others, the sooner things will turn around.

Reitman, who also directed “Juno,” and his co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner, are not interested in 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. That advice, however, represents the most meaningful way in which the screenwriters diverge from Kirn’s more pessimistic novel. The film’s message boils down to two aphorisms that can appear anodyne out of context and are symptomatic of Hollywood’s crowd-pleasing impulse: “Life is better with company” and “Everybody needs a co-pilot.”

Though seemingly trite, these epigrams address the fundamental dilemma with which Ryan is struggling. And he does so in a society that for all its gesturing toward family and togetherness, makes it disturbingly easy to remain alone and to believe you must feel fulfilled when you are. The brand of escapism and avoidance Ryan perfects is relatively tame. It even has its usefulness within a community, just as finding better ways of easing people through a paradigmatic shift in our economy is an unfortunate necessity. But it’s not enough.

So, while retaining its cynical sheen and using its own verbal dexterity to reveal a harsh reality, this savvy “dramedy” points toward more—toward better conditions beyond the distress and isolation it entertainingly depicts and toward healthier responses that will get us there faster. That’s why “Up in the Air” should resonate across multiple divides and classes, and why it can be seen as emblematic of the decade just ended.

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