Throughout this semester, I have frequently referenced an NPR interview with film scholar David Thomson in which he discussed how desperate times often birth great works of art. Think of the films that released during the Great Depression (or about it) for example. Hopefully, these tough economic times in which we find ourselves will be no different and inspire thought-provoking creative works as well. Jason Reitman‘s latest film, Up In the Air, is certainly reason for optimism.
Up In the Air tells the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a professional “firer.” That’s right, he gets paid to travel back-and-forth across the country to do what his clients don’t have the guts to do…and he does it well, with a robotic tenderness that is, oddly enough, not as cold as one would expect. Bingham is good at his business, and in the economic crisis in which the country finds itself, his business is good. However, his own company is obviously also looking to scale back as well. Enter Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent Columbia grad who has followed her boyfriend to Omaha where she has taken a job at Bingham’s firm. Soon, she plans to save the company loads of money by creating an on-line interface through which her colleagues will terminate employees. Before she can implement the program, she must go out on the road to learn the ropes from Bingham.
Every aspect of Up In the Air works to near perfection, but its greatest asset is the lead character and the actor who portrays him. Bingham is one of the most compelling characters in recent cinema played by one of contemporary cinema’s greatest actors. Bingham’s job has increased the distance that he has kept from the rest of the world (his family included). He has more miles than memories it seems, working toward a number that he hasn’t hit yet. He has also turned his professional loner-ism into a self-help lecture that he frequently gives at conferences, asking his audiences to visualize a backpack and then asking them what they would put in or leave/take out. However, in his journey, he encounters a woman, Alex Gora (Vera Farmiga), who challenges his isolationist policy while embodying complex notions of relationships all her own.
Despite this disconnect, he enters into and connects with people at one of the most powerful moments in their life…when they need a connection the most. And Natalie wants to take this all away for the sake of the company’s bottom line. Thus, Up In the Air implicitly challenges the notion that somehow our wired world makes us more meaningfully connected. Another highlight of Up In the Air is its use of real people to play the roles of the recently fired and to reflect on past firings. In the process, the film highlights the immense role that work plays in many Americans’ notions of self-worth and identity. This is crucial to personal development and fulfillment without a doubt, but is there a danger that we place too much emphasis on that aspect of our own experience?
With witty dialogue, brillaint acting, and an atypical Hollywood conclusion, Up In the Air is shaping up to be one of the year’s better films.
Up In the Air (109 minutes) is rated R for language and some sexual conten and is in theaters everywhere.