No place like home?

January 20, 2010

Jim Ramey reviews a new film that centers on the economic devastation caused by the Great Recession--but without getting very far beneath the surface.

IN THE opening scenes of Jason Reitman's much heralded new film Up in the Air, we see images of the U.S. from cruising altitude, as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings do their version of "This Land is Your Land."

Interstate clover-leafs and scores of sectioned-off farmland in perfect 360-degree circles fill the screen. The angles on these two kinds of structures are presented so sharply and precisely that it seems, from afar, that there must be a clear and controlled order to the world below. It's not a motorist's view or a farmer's view; it's an outsider's view.

The outsider is Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney. Bingham fires people for a living. When a company decides it's time to downsize, they call Bingham's firm, and he flies into town to hand them their severance package and a few words of encouragement.

Bingham's line is: "Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are." The grammar is poor, the meaning is entirely vague, if one even exists, but it actually works. Whenever Bingham utters that phrase to the recently fired, they become calm and resolute in the idea that maybe being fired is actually better than staying in the company, especially one that is downsizing--and especially one that outsources its layoffs.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air

These scenes set the tone for the entire film, and that's good. In the production of Up in the Air, Reitman auditioned and used actual laid-off workers to play the roles of those in the movie, and the payoff is writ large. Montages of angry workers spitting their righteous venom back at their boss are worth the price of admission. But these scenes, well done and satisfactory as they are, aren't the guiding light for the movie.

Rolling through rounds of layoffs, and deftly in and out of airports and rental car lots, while keeping up a lucrative hobby on the lecturing circuit, Bingham has become an advocate for relationship-free living. His apartment, a one-bedroom, institutionally white-walled place, is his temple to this ethos.

Whatever weighs you down needs to be "unpacked" and set aflame, figuratively speaking, and relationships are those aspects of your life that weigh you down most.

RELATIONSHIPS, HOWEVER, don't have to be with other human beings. Bingham is crushed to find out that his job--the one thing he loves--is being fundamentally changed.


Up in the Air, written and directed by Jason Reitman, starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga.

In a move to take advantage of the current period of massive layoffs, Craig, Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman), announces that they will be conducting layoffs by way of videoconference. Even in a profession as bottom-feeding as this one, it's a bit low.

The idea is bright young Natalie's (Anna Kendrick). She is an intelligent, career-driven Cornell grad who is working for said-bottom-dwelling firm because she "followed a boy" to Omaha, and this was the best job available. After a quick meeting with the boss and Bingham, it's decided that she should join Bingham on the road to get a better feel for how to implement video conferencing layoffs.

There, we see humanity butting its stubborn head into the profit margin, and again, the film's strength emerges. One laid-off worker asks how he is supposed to feed his kids on the $250 a week that unemployment pays. Natalie, as if reading from a high school guidance counselor's handbook, states that he should expect to spend one month for every $10,000 a year he's trying to make.

These scenes have a certain brilliance about them as they capture the two different worlds of those doing the firing and those being fired. These are subtly divisive scenes that, at the very least, force you to empathize with those being fired.

But these scenes begin and end with those who are doing the firing. The flaw in this movie is that it never really takes on the skyrocketing unemployment rate. It merely presents it. In fact, Reitman, who wrote the script earlier in the decade, added most of the plot about the devastating economy almost as an afterthought.

In an interview promoting the film, Reitman said, "This is not a movie about job loss. It never has been...I would say that less than 10 percent of the film takes place in the world of corporate terminations." It is with this "less than 10 percent" attitude that Reitman takes on job loss, and the focus of the movie remains on Bingham, the man with no relationships.

Along the road, Bingham meets a fellow corporate jet-setter named Alex (Vera Farmiga). They almost instantly have sex and decide that they should make time in their schedules for one another. This is explicitly not a relationship, but as such arrangements often do in Hollywood, it gets complicated. Here's where Reitman decides to focus the movie and turn the message away from economic devastation and toward spiritual devastation.

It's unfair to say that the movie fails because of this, and it doesn't. The conclusion that you take away from Up in the Air is that you can't live an isolated life and be a happy human being. It reaches that conclusion in a compelling way, and no matter how much he wants to run from it, Reitman uses the recession to make important points about Bingham's isolation.

A man who is so used to witnessing a moment in another person's life that person will never forget necessarily builds up defenses that protect him from solidarity and empathy. But the film focuses on the defenses, not the causes for them, which is left to the imagination of the viewer.

Natalie is ultimately saved by not having these defenses. Meanwhile, Bingham's crisis of deciding whether to tear down his defenses and not do his job effectively, or leave them up and not live his life effectively, provides the film with its climax.

Reitman has now directed three widely released Hollywood movies, and they've all been about important political topics. Thank You for Smoking dealt with Washington lobbyists, Juno was about abortion and teenage pregnancy, and now we have Up in the Air about economic devastation.

While it's promising that these topics are discussed in the mainstream media by a young director in an artful way, it's frustrating that neither the artistic nor the political status quo are challenged in any significant way.

Up in the Air does represent his finest work to date, and I hope that it's the last film in a trilogy that is defined by its time--and that Reitman's next work will help contribute to defining that time.

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