Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is not a great movie. But it is certainly a superb, must-see movie of its time.
Many readers will know the plot: Ryan Bingham, a so-called corporate downsizer (played by George Clooney) meets a sexy fellow corporate warrier, Alex (Vera Farmiga, “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about. Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.”), and a young corporate-newbie named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), whose ideas about videoconferencing threaten to do unto Ryan what he’s been doing unto others all these years. Bingham loses both Alex (after falling for her) and Natalie (when she discovers one of the employees she fired has committed suicide).
Whether or not Rietman intended it (he started writing the screenplay 6 years ago), “Up in the Air” is a serious comedy about contemporary capitalism. Clearly, in the midst of growing unemployment, a character whose job it is to fly around the country firing employees, and with a minimum of legal exposure, will strike a discordant note with many viewers (that he’s played by Clooney doesn’t make what he does any less objectionable). Apparently (so I have discovered), capitalism has found a way of profiting from doing exactly what Bingham does; there are many firms that specialize in what is euphemistically called corporate downsizing and outplacement services. They are hired by corporations who choose not to fire workers either in person (whether individually or in group meetings) or by email (as Radio Shack did to 400 employees in August 2006).
“The workforce reduction notification is currently in progress,” the notice stated. “Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.”
And Bingham is the perfect stand-in for capital: he loves the “phomey” simulacra world of air travel (“Everything you hate about travel is why I love it”); he has no connection to anyone or any place (he has no romantic relationships, no commitment to family members, and an empty apartment in Omaha—only loyalty to an airline); and his only real goal in life is to accumulate air mileage (to accumulate 10 million frequent-flier miles).
One of the ironic twists of the movie is that Natalie, fresh out of college and as nihilistic as Clooney, has devised a computer video program (she wants to name it The Terminator, but her boss refuses), which will enable the firing of employees from a remote location, thus replacing Bingham and his co-terminators (or at least keeping them grounded). He is thus forced to try to justify the in-person services he provides, which cannot but fail to convince viewers. Firing workers humanely makes as much sense as the idea of humane executions.
The film exhibits a difficult ambiguity: on one hand, it includes interview segments featuring a combination of real people and actors who relate their experiences of being fired, which would be difficult to watch in any climate, and are even more gut-wrenching in the midst of the current crises; on the other hand, it is permeated with product placement, with American Airlines, Hertz, Travelpro, and Hilton Hotels all featured prominently. In this sense, the making of the film undoes, at least in part, the otherwise anti-corporate story line.
A similar tension is revealed in the advertising campaign: while Paramount has worked hard to publicize the film as a story about a solitary man “ready to make a connection,” the effect of the film itself is quite different. Viewers may indeed root for Bingham to make a connection—but not with family members or Alex. We want him to ultimately side with the people he’s firing.