2009. Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick. Directed by Jason Reitman.
The irony is thick in Up In The Air. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a happy air warrior who specializes in firing employees for timid employers all over the country. He is summoned back to HQ for a change in direction — a young colleague (Anna Kendrick) has devised a means of firing people through videoconferencing, effectively terminating Bingham from the profession he has perfected.
Bingham sees the benefit of a face-to-face dismissal for every kind of unwanted employee, a way to soften the blow and minimize the blowback, however insincerely delivered. “Everyone who has ever ruled an empire or changed the world sat in the same seat as you, and they would not have accomplished what they did if this hadn’t also happened to them” — that’s his line, polished and appropriated by all his colleagues, meant to disarm and distract the newly axed. “What we do is take people at their most fragile,” he later admits to the colleague, “and set them adrift.”
The new method of firing employees online will take away his constant travel and disrupt the life he has also perfected — living without roots, collecting perks from every transaction, slipping away effortlessly from every interaction. He travels light, using his executive status to dash to the front of lines, maxing out his per diems, and eventually meeting his complement in the form of Alex (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar. They flirt over preferred membership cards, and have a nice, commitment-free romp before catching their morning flights.
Bingham takes his young colleague on the road with him, to show her the complexities of their trade that can’t be summarized in a dispassionate script. She’s wound as tight as he is loose, but as she unwinds on the road, we learn that she’s vulnerable to the painful toll of relationships that he has built his life around avoiding. He’s even written the book on unburdening yourself of human baggage — a self-help book he travels to promote on his days off.
Eventually, his protege inspires him to examine all the miles he’s traveled and to question where he’s going. “Call me when you’re lonely,” Alex says as they part once again at an airport gate. “I’m lonely,” he replies in an untypical, unguarded moment.
Up In The Air is a terrifically entertaining film, and prescient enough to be released in the middle of our great recession, when downsizing and career-shifting and existential doubt are familiar to many of us. Unburdened by the weight of others holding him down, Clooney’s friendly executioner floats from town to town, helping dismantle the American dream for one middle-class worker at a time. He suggests to one that now might be the time to chase those dreams he’d left behind, that the end he’d been hired to deliver was really a beginning of sorts. Some of those receiving bad news are angry and resentful, and some are ashamed. Most will find a way to land on their feet. But it doesn’t matter to the messenger, because he’ll be long gone before they land anywhere.
Bingham’s approach to his career seems like it should be successful. Without the weights of conscience, commitment and purpose, a guy could really get somewhere. What he finds up above us all, up above the clouds that hover over the rest of us, is that a life without them can be lonely and cold.