"How much does your life weigh?": the vicious pleasures of Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, starring George Clooney

Up in the Air begins much like The Godfather, only instead of an undertaker pleading for justice before Marlon Brando, here a man pleads for his job. Fixed like an insect under the lens of the camera, he talks of his "30 years of service" and how get fired brings on a stress level equivalent to a death in the family, but it is no use. As corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham, George Clooney coolly tells the man to "review this packet," and sends him on his way. Ryan plays an agent of judgment of the recession, the man who gets paid to fire people so that the local management does not have to, and he has found a way to enjoy the world of airports and perpetual flight. Like a blend between Huckleberry Finn and Patrick Bateman, Ryan revels in a frictionless cold world of high-level credit cards, VIP passes, Hyatt suites, expertly packed carry-on luggage, and first class seats. His character reminded me of Michael Clayton in the way he uses his charm to do the dirty work for faceless firms, but whereas Michael Clayton remained ice cold in its depiction of the poisonous atmosphere of cut-throat corporate villainy ironically juxtaposed with the deceit of its public relations machinery, Up in the Air, as adapted to the screen by Jason Reitman from the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, actually considers reforming Ryan Bingham. And that was my one major problem with this otherwise enjoyable film (aside from the increasingly grating jingly The Graduate-esque pop guitar soundtrack). Instead of staying a gleeful snake all of the way through, Ryan considers accepting the responsibility of a family life, of human connections.

Meanwhile, I read much of Walter Kirn's novel, and found its Thank You for Smoking-like satirical tone pleasurable, but it is also surprisingly different from the movie. While Reitman took the major character and his "Airworld" intact from the book, the movie adds on Natalie Keener (23 year old Anna Kendrick of Twilight fame), who plays an up-and-coming young corporate shark who threatens to undermine Ryan's travelling privileges by proposing that the company they work for simply set up i-chat video conferencing to fire people all over the world from one location. So, while there are a few similarities between the novel and the movie (both involve a sister who's getting married), the tone of the book is radically different. Kirn wrote it before 9/11, so even as a satire of corporate culture, the book has a sunny disposition that Reitman has turned rancid by alluding to recent history--the downsizing of corporations, the increasingly empty spaces where there were once cubicles, and all of that wasted corporate real estate that reminds me of ghost malls. In fact, the scenes that involve terminating people don't start until after page 200 in the novel, whereas Reitman persuaded non-actors who had really been sacked to recreate the experience on the camera. As Reitman said in an interview with Anne Thompson:

"We ended up putting 60 people on film, 22 of which are in this movie. So everyone besides the actors you recognize, everyone who gets fired in this movie, is someone who’s lost their job. They would come in, sit at a table, we would interview them for about 10 minutes, we would ask them questions about how they lost their job, who they told first, how this has affected their life, and as soon as they were comfortable on camera, we would say, ‘we’d like to actually fire you on camera now. And we’d like you to respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or if you prefer, how you wish you had responded.’ And this would begin an improv scene; unlike any improv scene I’ve ever seen in my life.

My job as a director is to get people to be honest on camera, that’s kind of it in a nutshell. It’s to get actors to be authentic. And I know how hard it is to sometimes get people to be authentic on camera. And yet here in this moment, 22 people who had never acted before, we would read them this boilerplate legal firing document that I found through an HR person, that is basically used coast to coast for firing. And the second they would hear this legal verbiage, and they would hear the kind of language they heard the day they lost their job, they would start to use sense-memory without knowing it. Their body language would change, their shoulders would fold, their eyes would turn, one girl broke into hives. I’m not sure if you noticed her, the hives broke out across her neck, right at that moment. And they’d begin asking questions of our interviewer, who knows nothing of their situation, they’d ask them about severance, and their medical benefits, and why they were chosen and why not somebody else. And if there was another job that they could get in the company, and these would go on for ten, sometimes 20 minutes. They were really emotional, and they would get angry and they would cry, and they would say the kind of things I could never think of as a writer, and it was said in a way that I would never think to direct them.

The most startling of which is in the movie, when the guy says, ‘What are you going to do this weekend? You got a tank full of gas, going to take your kid to Chuck-e-Cheese?’ I’ve never thought of Chuck-E-Cheese as a luxury, I think of Chuck-E-Cheese as a mediocre pizza place with a guy in a rag costume. I could never write that because I would have thought that was somehow insulting, and somehow me trying to be funny. But when he said it, that was the truth for him, and it was an incredible experience as a director. And it actually makes me want to try that more in the future – working with non-actors. We shot that on day four of a 50-day shoot and it set the tone for everything from there on."

Not only did these non-actors give the movie an intense slice of raw cinema-verite emotion that Reitman could not have gotten in any other way, they also serve as a nice contrast to Clooney's glib manner and Natalie Keener's frigid professionalism that reminded me at times of Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire. The movie taps into something like tragedy (one critic described the film as "Death of a Salesman with Cary Grant"), but in a strange way, I found myself rooting for Ryan's emotional disengagement from humanity. He has found a way to coast over the world, and not deal with consequences. Ironically, even Ryan's major love interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) prefers a relationship with no strings attached. At one point, Natalie Keener asks Ryan if he ever follows up on his fired victims who threaten to kill themselves, and he says that "No good would come of that." The audience in the theater laughed. Ryan describes himself and his cronies as sharks who must cultivate carrying everything they own in a backpack because "moving is living," and "relationships are the heaviest components of your life." In a country founded on the idea of western expansion, Ryan has found a way to keep moving even if he jumps from Kansas City to St. Louis to Omaha to Las Vegas in an endless hopscotch around the country in his attempt to attain 10 million frequent flyer miles.

Even though Natalie says that Ryan has the maturity of a 12 year old, he's still obliged to grow up, and that's the major problem with the uneven latter third of the movie. Ryan flies out to Omaha to attend his sister's wedding. When the groom (Danny McBride) starts to get cold feet, Reitman places him inside a children's classroom where he reads The Velveteen Rabbit. Ironically, given his perpetually single lifestyle, Ryan gets the job of trying to talk the groom back into wanting to get married, but I was already bothered by the visual rhetoric implied by this scene. We see the groom sitting in a miniature chair because he's acting like a child, and that basically undermines all of Ryan's attempts to remain free. I was just noticing in the recent New Yorker that Anthony Lane describes Ryan as "a rootless soul who mistakes his emptiness for freedom," and he needs schooling. Perhaps so, but the movie's moralistic turn denies the fun and the black humor of Ryan's angel of death Airworld.

In the novel, one of Ryan's female friends says "Someone was going to see under your black hood and realize the Grim Reaper was just a kid," but that's the glory of being a child, since a kid needn't get caught up in the dreary tragedies of adult life. Instead, as Reitman includes some footage of the non-actors trying to come to terms with being fired, the movie moves perilously close to therapy. Call me crass, but I liked Up in the Air's frictionless world of empty freedom better, in part because it better suits Clooney's remorseless charm.


Sam Juliano said…
Interesting, excellently-written piece Film Dr., though I'll admit I'm far less enamored of this film, which was fluffy and forgettable in hindsight. But no doubt I'm in a vast minority here.
Richard Bellamy said…
"Call me crass, but I liked Up in the Air's frictionless world of empty freedom better, in part because it better suits Clooney's remorseless charm." Very well said, and I liked this aspect of the film too. Bingham's lifestyle kind of appealed to me because (if you recall from my summer travelogues) I don't mind taking two or three connections to fly to a place; I kind of like airports; and I love the anonymity of motels.

I guess the film implies at the end that Bingham will choose a place he hasn't been to before (according to Natalie's suggestion) and, thus, he will seek more direction in his life. But it might also suggest that he's too tied to his current way of life. Maybe he won't move from that destination board with any sort of resolved plan.

So, I really liked his character, and I liked your drawing the parallel between Bingham and Huck Finn. I also really liked the character of Natalie Keener. She's the epitome of intense competitiveness in a very competitive world.

But the talking heads montage at the end kind of soured it for me. I didn't find it sincere. Yeah, you can call it improv and say that you're getting genuine responses, but an improv is sort of scripted. Actors, professional or non, know the possibilities and basically put on a performance. As we know from so-called reality television, the "reality" of something like The Hills is basically planned out ahead of time.

Overall it was an enjoyable film with some excellent acting and characterizations, but it didn't stay with me for very long.
Thanks, Sam. I found the movie interesting as a meditation on flight as freedom. I also liked the scene where Alex and Natalie compare notes on the romantic expectations one has with men in their 20's and then twenty years older. I also liked the way Reitman used mise-en-scene to convey the desolation in the business world today.

Thanks, Hokahey,

I remember now about all of your travels. Some would say freedom is an illusory and basically unknown thing for humans, but otherwise, one might consider perpetual movement as one way to keep possibilities alive, to not freeze into habits, routine, and everydayness. I found Ryan compelling although I would hate to have to travel by air that much. It seems to get more degrading with every terrorist attempt. I also agree with Jason Bellamy that for much of the time, Up in Air makes getting away from people look like more fun than commitment to a family (what a dreary, limited definition of maturity, after all).

I agree that the talking heads sequence was one of the weaker ones. I had the same problem with Reitman's . Both films get problematic when the characters have to grow up.
The Prince said…
I thought this was a fine picture, a perfect vehicle for George Clooney. It was quite unpredictable. Very topical. Fascinating premise. I had no idea where the story was headed. Some interesting philosophy. Nice conflict between Clooney and Kendrick. Very funny in places. I liked the last third of the movie. I did not think it was uneven at all. It could have sunk into banality and platitudes but it did not. Loved the How much does your life weigh stuff. Thought provoking. The opening was strong. Who the fuck am I. Frankly it was all pretty good.

Some people - actually a lot of people - want to pass judgement on the character Clooney plays. I found the sacking people for a living angle fascinating and the real people used gave the story a sharp contemporary bite. Certainly not the lifestyle choice for everybody - but the film is definitely worth watching.
Thanks for your thoughts. I wouldn't want to judge Clooney's character either. We can agree to disagree about the latter third of the movie. In retrospect, I wish I could attain the pleasure and ease that Bingham has moving through airports. That seems increasingly hard to do.