Monday, January 18, 2010
Up In The Air
One of the things they teach you when studying human resources is that if firing someone ever gets easy, you should maybe consider re-evaluating your career path. Like almost everything learned in the classroom setting, I took this advice at face value and logged it in the proper annals of my brain without ever considering the elegiac implications of such a statement: the very thing that Up In the Air, as subtle and biting an overturning of contemporary North American corporate culture as there has ever been, is all about. The hero of the story is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who acts as the guy who is called in when big companies outsource work to downsize their staff because they don’t want to deal with the mess themselves. It’s his job to fly into town, inform the recipient of the bad news, console them, alert them to their options and bid them adieu, never to see them again. This is Bingham’s life for all but a handful of days of the year: always flying, never stagnant enough to ever become attached to anything of worth or value to him except his job. He essentially has no home, no past, no future and no definition: a man adrift in a world whose only loyal inhabitant is himself. Consider him a merge between William Hurt’s Macon Leary from the Accidental Tourist and, maybe more accurately, Marcello from Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolche Vita. He's always drifting from one encounter to the next, never staying put, never feeling anything, never being anything to anyone. Life is essentially getting from one necessary banality to the next on the way to either retirement or death, which, to men like Bingham, may be about the same thing. Bingham is the typical archetype for the North American corporate success story. He’s married to nothing but his work, which his does with cold, unaffected precision. In between he hosts informational seminars in which he tries to convince people that life is essentially carrying a backpack: you must fill it only with the most necessary items in order to travel lightly and without strain. Pictures are only for those with bad memories, Bingham advises, so throw them out and make room for something you need. The heaviest object that can be carried in the backpack is personal relationships. Not only do they weigh you down and slow you up, but they require extra baggage costs. And sure enough, when Bingham meets a similar minded girl Alex (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel lounge their flirtation involves debating which rental car service is superior, their attraction revolves around their collections of VIP cards and their eventual sex seems more out of a need to pass the time between firings than any sort of lustful desire. There is, however, one thing of meaning that propels Bingham. Because of his constant travelling he wants to be the seventh man in history to accumulate over 10 million Frequent Flier Miles. Such an achievement would provide the only kind of elite status he has to prove he is anything more than nothing. Then something happens. After the young, aptly named, Natalie Keener (Twlight’s Anna Kendrick) is hired, she brings with her plans to save the company money by setting up Internet connections with clients in order to do their work without the constantly high travel expenses. Bingham is quick to reject this proposition and for good reason. Not only is the sole human connection he ever makes going to be taken away from him and automated, but the chance to achieve his goal would be ripped out from under him. Bingham is soon assigned to take Natalie out on the road with him to teach her the ropes of the business. The two initially clash. He can’t understand her naivety and optimism: looking for perfect love, thinking she can change the world, etc, and she can’t understand how his life has become so simple and meaningless, and all the while we are reminded of that virginal young girl in the café across from Marcello in La Dolche Vita. Along the way Bingham subverts his course in order to take pictures of a cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiancé (ala the dwarf in Amelie) against famous American backdrops for their wedding. Bingham is estranged from his family, has never met his brother-in-law to be, and can’t understand why anyone would want pictures of themselves in places they have never been before. The answer to Bingham’s ignorance comes during the wedding (the film's center and best section) in which it is revealed that the reason for the gimmick was because the couple could not afford a honeymoon, but still wanted something symbolic in it’s place, and the power of the symbol is both salient and enlightening: the pictures are fake but meaningful, while Bingham’s life is real but empty. It’s the turning point of the film. Up In the Air thus becomes a gentle meditation of the importance upon which North American culture places on career-mindedness and high salary living. The film is only the third from Canadian director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman after Thank You For Smoking and Juno, who by now should be considered within the upper pantheons of great contemporary directors and here strikes an even balance between what was most rewarding about those two films. It both satirises corporate culture to great humorous effect but also delves deep into the personal psyche in order to examine the toll that such a life takes on the very fundamentals of living. The American Dream, it is shown, has failed us again. Thus, Bingham, through his relationship with the two woman and his life and from his time at home with family, slowly grows to realize that life is nothing without, not only things to be proud of, but people to share the pride along with. Like Marcello, he’s seen too many things and been around too long to even break out of the mould he’s set for himself. Yet his story is not one of tragedy but one of hope. It’s too late for him, but there’s still life beyond the flight schedule board for the rest of us.