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Up In the Air

dir: Jason Reitman
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This flick has garnered an incredible amount of positive reviews, awards, nominations, probably women kissing posters of George Clooney in public, dreamily smearing their cheap lipstick all over the glass failing to protect his poster within.

And for what? A guy flies around the States firing people. The end.

That’s it? That’s everything wrapped up in a neat little fucking package?

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Ryan Bingham (oh, you’re soooo dreamy, George Clooney) is a charming and empty man who spends almost all of his time in the air, flying from downsizing opportunity to downsizing opportunity, and he loves it that way. He hates having to go back to the company headquarters, because it means he’s not in perpetual motion. Like some form of even more soulless shark, he needs to keep moving or he gets frantic.

He has reduced the elements of travelling, like dealing with the customs people, the torments of rental car hire, hotel reservations and those little bottles of booze all to both a fine art and also the stuff of his own life.

Bingham even has the temerity to try to peddle his fancifully ‘happy’ life into the stuff of get-rich-quick / self-help seminars, asking prospective sheep “What’s In Your Backpack?” as if it’s a question of any worth. He starts off, in his presentations to ever-increasing groups of morons, representing to them how all the stuff they care about in their lives, including their families, are pretty much worthless.

I’m all for praising the individual, but honestly, that level of isolation is priceless.

In the course of his travels, two things happen to Bingham: he meets a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga) who seems to be his female equivalent, and he has to take some young upstart on the road with him to show her the value of what service he provides to the companies of America. This young know-nothing Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has the potential to fuck up Bingham’s life because she has a plan to conduct these mass firings via webcam in future.

What? How cruel would that be? Especially to Bingham.

Much of the film is taken up literally with scenes of Bingham and Natalie travelling from state to state firing people in person, using the phrases and methods Bingham has developed from decades on the road.

We are meant to believe that, in this scenario, companies or potentially cowardly bosses, more accurately, would bring in professional human resource axemen to kill off their employees in order to avoid direct confrontation and death threats, rattlesnakes in the mail box, etc. At a time where unemployment is 10 per cent in the States, and climbing here as well, of course these scenes of supposedly blameless employees being shown the door by insincere empty suits are the height of timeliness.

It’s quite demoralising and depressing to watch. It almost prompts feelings of shame. It’s impossible to watch some of those scenes, with people crying, or talking about the many years they’ve given to the company, only to be let go by plastic assassins like these two shmucks, without feeling something. It makes you side with the firees, of course, rather than the firers.

But Bingham’s position is that to do it well, as insincere and as much of a complete moral and emotional vacuum as he is, reduces the trauma these poor people go through, and perhaps starts them on the path to doing the things they really want to do with their lives.

Of course, most people in Obama’s America want to be able to pay the bills, and get looked after by hospitals when they need it, and none of that’s going to happen without a job.

The film uses a mixture of actors and real interviews with real people who were recently laid off at the time the flick was being made. Of course you can differentiate between them because the ‘real’ people look like real people, and the fired actors look like actors, who rant and rave just like most of us not too desperate for a decent reference to abuse the unflappable motherfuckers they bring in to do such things would.

I don’t buy the scenario, of course, because it’s much easier, from a cost effective and a not-giving-a-fuck-about-employees perspective to just pink slip employees with minimal ceremony. Helps with the legal stuff as well. A company shedding employees can’t afford to pay consultants exorbitant sums to fly from Florida to Oregon in order to fire people. But it’s important for establishing Bingham’s character, for making the flick relevant and resonant with contemporary audiences (you know, because Hollywood understands your pain, recently laid-off masses), and for keeping him in the air and away from other people.

Though impossibly charming and almost always smiling, I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake Bingham for a real, grown up person. His cynical and empty advice to people amounts to little more than a soulless person, who doubtless is happy, advising other people that they, too, could be happier if they were more soulless.

Sure, I can buy that. The problem is, to use American vernacular for a moment, the film totally pussies out. When one of Bingham’s rarely-seen sisters is getting married, and Bingham is called upon to convince the groom that he doesn’t have cold feet, and that he should get married, instead of saying what he should, since he believes marriage and family are worthless and an unnecessary burden, he tells the guy something he couldn’t possible believe in order to assure him of the error of his ways.

Beyond that (of course I realise the whole point of the flick is that he’s supposed to regain his humanity and his connection to other people, I’m not as dumb as some of my reviews imply), his superficial interactions with the people around him mostly indicate that in reality he’s a serial killer, not that in reality he’s a person who deeply needs to settle down and pump out some rugrats.

I mean, honestly, Clooney is in very good nick for his age, but he still looks like he’s pushing 60. ‘Real’ life and film blend to depict the character as the “boy eternal” that the tabloids depict Clooney as on a regular basis. From late night television hosts to film scripts: they're all telling Clooney he needs to settle down and have a family.

Why? Well, I’ve got a thousand theories, and most of them are based on what sheep people truly are, and how easily threatened people are by people who choose to live differently.

Instead of celebrating his freedom, especially since the writing seems to be on the wall for his chosen lifestyle and profession, Bingham almost seems like he’s starting to unravel, at the same time as he seeks a closer connection, potentially with fellow traveller, Alex, who seems at first to be as empty as he. But she has hidden depths, or shallows, as the case may be, and in an interesting scene where the three main characters, Ryan, Alex and Natalie discuss ‘perfect’ partners, it’s really quite a telling scene, especially when it’s linked with a revelation later on in the flick.

I’ve heard commentary and complaint about an aspect of the film that comes to be as much of a surprise to us as it is to another character, and whilst I don’t have any problem with that revelation, for it to be the big surprise that it is requires a lot of misdirection on the part of the story. You have to ask yourself why certain people would have given their addresses to certain other people, or why they would have gone to a wedding as someone’s guest, circumstances being what they are.

It does allow for a both demoralising and yet entirely appropriate ending, where everyone pretty much gets everything they ever said they ever wanted. How’d that working out for you, Bingham/Clooney, eh?

I enjoyed the flick, it’s tightly put together and doesn’t overstay its welcome at all, being light and breezy but also a sharp scalpel into dead people’s souls. It’s ultimately another in a long line of flicks made by Hollywood hacks, this time in the hands of Jason Reitman, son of hack director Ivan Reitman, which tries to tell us who work in corporate / officeland how empty and soul-draining our jobs and lives must be because we don’t follow our dreams like the people in Hollywood do. But they also want to tell us that they understand our pain when we lose our jobs and can’t afford health insurance.

Very noble of all you shmucks, truly. My difficulty isn’t in figuring out which of you should get the Oscar: It’s deciding which of you shouldn’t get Oscars, because you’re all so fucking deserving. True humanitarians, all.

7 times I wonder how much longer George Clooney will be able to keep doing that smile he does without the flesh adjacent to his eyes splitting down to the bone out of 10

“All the things you probably hate about travelling -the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi- are warm reminders that I'm home” – Up In The Air