Up In The Air: A documentary about the way corporate culture shapes American geography, disguised as a love story.
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, “as pretty as an airport.”
- Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-time of The Soul
Ryan Bingham (Clooney) works for CTC, a consulting firm in Omaha to which you can outsource your firing needs. A CTC transition specialist will fly to your office, fire a dozen or a hundred of your employees, and be back on a plane that afternoon. When CTC hires ambitious Cornell graduate Natalie Keener (Kendrick), Bingham is assigned to show her the ropes, dragging her from Wichita to Miami to Detroit, contrasting his views of attachment with hers. While this goes on, Bingham flirts via text message with another hardcore business traveler (Farmiga) and frets over how to get out of attending his sister’s wedding.
The firings in Up In The Air take place in rapid, documentary-style jump cuts. This is only fitting, since every fired employee (save a few big name actors like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifanakis) was recently fired, recruited by director Jason Reitman through an ad in the paper. The complaints, the confusion and the anger share the same bitter chorus: I’ve put in 17 years with this company; what am I supposed to tell my daughter; do you sleep well at night? It’s a level of heartbreak that, viewed through the lens of cinema, makes no sense: how can you be mad at George Clooney? Look at his chin! But that’s the disconnect Reitman wants you to evaluate. People get so frustrated when they lose their jobs because they invest so much of themselves – or rather, their selfs – in those jobs. If you work in an office, you spend more time at your desk than you do with your children or your wife. You spend more time on someone else’s reports than you do on your creative passion. Then a man you’ve never met shows up to take it away.
Keener approaches these firings with the coolness of an oral exam, blinking and calculating in response to each rejoinder. On one flight, we see her devising a comprehensive script to answer any potential complaint. But when her boyfriend breaks up with her while she’s traveling with Bingham, she collapses in uncharacteristic tears in a hotel lobby. Keener treats her job like, well, a job, even when that job is telling people who’ve invested twenty or more years in a company that they’re No Longer Wanted. But she takes her relationships seriously. Contrast this with Bingham, who approaches each case with a warm and sympathetic ear. He tells each victim that being let go could be the door for a new opportunity – and he’s not conning them; he seems to believe it. But Bingham invests none of this attachment in his relationships, urging the attendees at his motivational speaking sessions to “empty out their backpacks” of sentimental knicknacks, detailed histories and personal relationships.
It’s tempting to see Up In The Air as a story about a modern nomad, a man without connections. But Bingham is connected. He spends most of his life in the air, depicted in the movie through an artful series of bird’s-eye panoramas of American cities. We see Chicago’s skyline, Miami’s beachfront, Detroit’s factories and Topeka’s checkerboard farms. America encompasses so many varieties of corporate infrastructure: housing communities, hotel chains, agriculture, auto manufacturers, telecom companies and cloverleaf interchanges. That’s what Bingham loves; the language of film tells us that. When he reaches the personal milestone he’s been aiming at for so long, a corporate spokesman descends from the clouds and thanks him “for his loyalty.” Bingham’s not a vagabond. He’s a vassal. So is everyone else we meet.