Up in the Air (2009)

Posted: February 11, 2010 in Kim Nicolini
Tags: , ,

Up in the Air

A Review of Up in the Air
A Landscape of Impossible Options

By KIM NICOLINI

If you’d asked me before I did this movie, “What’s the worst thing about losing your job in this type of economy?” I would’ve probably said the loss of income. But as I talked to these people, that rarely came up. What people said, time and time again, was: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” It was really about a lack of purpose. They would say, you know, “After I finish this interview, I’m going to go get in my car, and I have nowhere to be.” And I can’t imagine thinking that every day.
– Jason Reitman on the making of “Up In The Air”

“How much does your life weigh?” This is the question that Ryan Bingham (played to perfection by George Clooney) asks in Up In The Air, Jason Reitman’s brilliant new movie that so beautifully, hilariously, and brutally encapsulates America’s current cataclysmic economy. This is a question for the current economic landscape where people are losing their jobs, their homes, and their every possession at astronomical rates, an economy where people are being left empty handed and without many options for a new future. Ryan Bingham thinks he understands the transience of material culture. That’s why he delivers informational seminars telling people to eliminate excess weight in their lives. Bingham understands the fragility of economic stability and material acquisition because he spends the large majority of his life traveling the country and telling hard working Americans they’re out of jobs. Yes, Ryan Bingham is a professional hit man in this depression era economy which has generated a real unemployment rate of 22 percent. He packs his suitcase, takes to the air, and is like some kind of corporate downsizing angel of death as he delivers bad news encased in motivational speeches that sound like something he pulled out of a fortune cookie.

As the movie follows the story of Bingham and the people he encounters, it delivers one hell of a powerful commentary on where we stand in today’s economic landscape. While it could be classified as a depression era comedy (and it plays like the best of them), in the end the movie is more devastating than funny. Sure, it has loads of exquisitely hilarious moments in which we laugh our asses off, but ultimately the movie is a sad and tragic tale of the dehumanizing effects of neo-liberal economics and the decimation of the American workforce.

The opening scenes set the stage for the interior tension of the movie that fluctuates between humor and hardcore reality. The opening credits are a sweeping tribute to America. Witnessed from the bird’s eye perspective of an airplane, we witness the American landscape as if we are seeing the living evidence of a Walt Whitman poem. The rolling plains, the bulging skylines, the crashing waves on the coasts, the quilt of this country marked out in farmlands and urban skylines and suburban sprawl. As the landscape rolls beneath the plane, we hear a hip hop rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and we could almost burst into patriotic pride at the sight of the golden valleys, wheat fields, diamond deserts, and ribbons of highway that weave through Guthrie’s lyrics. Except Reitman doesn’t allow this sentimentality to continue.

The movie cuts abruptly from the seemingly infinite land of opportunity to the enclosed corporate spaces of America, and we see who this land does and doesn’t belong to. The movie shifts from documenting the texture of the American landscape to the texture of workers’ faces as they are being told that they’re losing their jobs. Black faces, brown faces, white faces, female faces, male faces, old faces, and young faces receive the news. They are the reality of the American landscape close-up, and we witness their reaction as they swallow the bitter pill of the ax coming down on their economic stability. In these scenes, we see what this land has become. This land is a land where jobs are being outsourced; unemployment is rising at astronomical rates; homes are being foreclosed; and people are being forced onto the streets, homeless, jobless, their lives shattered. No American dream here.

Reitman’s slap in the face with reality in these scenes really is a dose of reality. These are not actors. These people are as real as the landscape we witnessed through the windows of the airplane. These are real people who recently lost their jobs. It took Reitman six years to write the screenplay for Up In The Air, and by the time he completed it, the economic climate had changed so drastically that he had to rewrite and rethink much of what he wrote. He could no longer play this story as comedy because the things he was showing in the movie had become a very real and brutal reality for many people. One of the changes that he made was to include interviews with actual people who had recently lost their jobs. Reitman hired the unemployed to sit in front of the camera and either say what they actually said when they were fired or say what they wish they had said. When we see those people in the opening scenes responding to losing their jobs, we are witnessing real words and real emotional responses from real people. These are not scripts being delivered by actors, and knowing this sets the somber, tragic, and enormously human tone of the rest of the movie.

Who is delivering this message and telling these people that they’re out of jobs? Meet Ryan Bingham, the job assassin. Clooney’s character is as complex as any that come in the movies. Bingham believes he understands this economy and can stay on top of it by literally staying up in the air and not being weighed down by such things as possessions and relationships. As he flies across the country being rented by corporations who are too spineless to fire their own employees, Bingham packs his suitcase with his zipper necktie holder and his black toiletries bag like a mafia hitman packing his machine guns. And Bingham packs his life as efficiently as his suitcase, removing anything from his life that could keep him tied down. Emptying his life of unnecessary obligations, Bingham is all work and all travel. He attempts to strip his soul to stay on top of the soulless economy in which he lives and operates.

Bingham thinks that by staying up in the air that he somehow can stay immune to the economic system that is crashing down on the lives of people all over America. Don’t have a family and kids, and you don’t have to worry about taking care of them. Don’t buy a home and fill it with furniture, televisions and major appliances, and you don’t have to worry about losing it. Bingham doesn’t chart his success in dollars, but in miles. His main goal in life is to reach 10 million miles on American Airlines, not to earn 10 million dollars. He marks his success by how much he can keep moving and not be anchored by the very economic system that he works for. In fact, we never get any sense that economics are important to Bingham as he goes through life spending none of his own money but living solely off his work budget. It’s like he’s created a shield between himself and the world of money, even though he is completely defined by work. Work is his life. It keeps him in the air, and it pays for his meals and his lodging. Work gives him opportunities to validate himself through his collection of Gold Priority Status cards for car rentals, hotels, and airlines. The irony is that he thinks his work gives him the opportunity to free himself from material bonds while his work consists of pulling the economic footing out from under the American workforce. Because Bingham has developed this impeccably efficient lifestyle without material or human commitments, he is able to perform his job and really believe that he is helping deliver these people to their next opportunity in life. Bingham’s motto is “The slower we move, the faster we die,” so he rationalizes his job by convincing the people who he unemploys that he’s helping them move. Tell that to the woman who kills herself by jumping off a bridge or the father who can no longer afford to get his daughter’s asthma medicine or the fifty-seven year old man crying in a Detroit automobile factory.

Despite Bingham’s belief that he is keeping himself safe by staying up in the air, the movie does a terrific job of exposing his vulnerability. As one of the sub-themes of the movie develops – that the company Bingham works for is going to replace travel with teleconferencing – and as Bingham is threatened with being “grounded” in an office, we get a sense of his vulnerability, that he too can be downsized and made obsolete, that he is not immune to the system.

One of the most brutally hard scenes in the movie is a scene where Bingham and his protégé Natalie fire a Detroit auto company worker through a computer monitor using digital conferencing. When Natalie and Bingham walk into the office and see the computer monitor with their boss’s head talking to them, our first thought was that Bingham was going to be fired. Instead, we witness an even more horrifying moment. Natalie fires the fifty-seven year old man, and the camera freezes on the man’s face crying within the frame of the computer monitor while we see the back of his head blurred behind glass in the other room. So much is happening in this scene. We feel the man’s utter isolation, alienation, and erasure and the dark hole that opens up when people are replaced by technology. In his crying face, we see the tragic decimation of the entire American working class. As his tear-soaked image flickers inside the computer monitor, we feel the humanity literally stripped out of the workplace. As the man leaves the office, and Bingham actually sees the bulk of his body pass by, we also feel the echoing ghost of Bingham’s stability shaking under his feet. Bingham could be that fifty-seven year old man being sent out onto the street, and we feel his vulnerability acutely.

Eventually we learn that there is not much separating Bingham from the man in the Detroit auto plant. Bingham may be flying first class, but in his core he is working class. As we meet his family and see where he grew up in upper Wisconsin, it becomes clear that one of the reasons he stays up in the air is to attempt to escape the fate of his class. We really can’t hate Bingham. He is a sad, lonely, and desperate man performing his job to the best of his ability and wedded to the idea that he is helping people navigate their way to “the other side” as he tells them they’re losing their jobs. He really believes that he is helping put a human face and a dose of dignity into this dehumanizing economic culture. As we learn more about Bingham, we understand the tension between the life he has adopted, the life he left behind, and the human vulnerability that he masks by staying up in the air.

One of the main reasons that Bingham’s character is so much more complex and sympathetic than you would expect from such a seemingly ruthless role is because he encounters such strong female characters who bring Bingham’s depth to the surface. The two female leads are very powerful presences in the film, and their strength rises to expose Bingham’s vulnerability. Though Clooney is the star of the movie, one of the things that Reitman achieves through his excellent screenplay and casting, is allowing Clooney to share the film with two exceptional actresses who command our attention as much as Clooney does.

Vera Farmiga plays the veteran business woman Alex Grogan. In her, not only has Bingham met his match, but he has met his superior. Alex and Bingham meet and become immediately attracted to their shared enthusiasm for a life without emotional or material ties, commitment to staying up in the air, and appreciation for the comforts of “simulated hospitality.” Why engage with real hospitality when you can take refuge in surface relationships? The repartee between Clooney and Farmiga is classic like in the best of screwball comedies. They meet, and Bingham sums Alex up as “a girl who doesn’t need directions.” Indeed, they sit in a hotel lounge and slap their gold cards on the table competing with travel status and miles to see who is the strongest. In another scene, after having sex, they flip open their laptops and type away simultaneously, each character taking up an equal half of the screen showing us that Alex is no bottom in this world.

While the screenplay leads us to believe that the movie is going to fall into the trappings of the romantic redemption narrative (how sweet that Alex and Bingham will find their hearts and fall in love), instead it uses this relationship to further explore Bingham’s vulnerability and class. In a classic gender role reversal, Alex (note the gender neutral name) becomes the man and Bingham becomes the foolish sentimental woman. When they first meet, Alex tells Bingham at one point that she is him “with a vagina.” At another point when she is getting ready to leave the hotel room after they had sex, she asks, “Am I making you feel cheap?” As the relationship develops, Bingham invites Alex to his sister’s wedding where he grew up in northern Wisconsin. As Alex and Bingham immerse themselves in Bingham’s working class home (making out in the high school, staying at the kitschy local hotel, interacting with the solidly working class family), Bingham falls for Alex. He becomes grounded literally by his job and emotionally by his feelings for Alex. Just when we think, this whole movie is going to fall into sentimental mush and give up its critical core, Bingham decides to surprise Alex at her home in Chicago, and the truth comes out.

Yes, the truth is that Alex is married and has children, but that’s not the only truth that’s exposed in this scene. As Bingham walks up to the Chicago townhouse (a sign of wealth), his whole body language changes. We can sense how uncomfortable he is this environment, not because he suspects that Alex has a family, but because he senses that she outclasses him. When Alex later laughs at him for thinking she would commit to him and tells him “you are a parentheses,” she makes him as obsolete as the big corporations have made the workers who Bingham fires. Whether Bingham felt cheap or not doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that in Alex’s eyes, he is cheap and disposable, just like the workers packing up their desks. While this all sounds cruel and heartless, Vera Farmiga’s performance as well as Reitman’s screenplay, are nuanced to show the complexities of the female in the workplace. Alex has adopted the role of male privilege to survive in an environment driven by male privilege.

Our sense of both Bingham and Alex is greatly complicated by the presence of another female character, the young Natalie Keener, played perfectly by Anna Kendrick. Natalie’s character explores the impossible position of the female in the workplace. Natalie, the fresh Cornell graduate, is full of ideas, book knowledge, and a whole history of what it means to be a woman. Brimming with idealism, Natalie wants it all – a professional career, a handsome well-educated well-paid husband, a kid, a dog, and a happily-ever-after. Natalie bursts with the tension between wanting to be a ruthless professional while also being an incredibly vulnerable young woman. Working under the expectations of her gender, we can feel the tension of her being pulled in so many directions by her culture, the need to be a ruthless professional, a super wife, and a perfect mother all in one.

Through her education and her disciplined approach to her career, Natalie tries hard to be in control, to be tough, to break free from female stereotypes while also completely succumbing to those stereotypes in what she thinks she wants from life. In the scene when Natalie joins Bingham on the road to learn how to fire people in person, she enters the airport with a loud screeching sound. She lugs in a giant old suitcase, the wheels squeaking behind her. Bingham tells Natalie she has to dump the suitcase, throw away the excess, and travel light. Natalie opens the suitcase in the middle of the airport and starts getting rid of things. That suitcase is the conundrum of Natalie’s life. She tries to fit everything she feels she’s supposed to be into her life, just like she tries to shove her pillow and her fifty pounds of make-up and clothing into the big old suitcase. She lugs around her dreams and obligations like over-stuffed baggage, but can’t seem to manage it all without stumbling. In one of the most brilliant scenes in the movie, Natalie and Alex talk about the kind of man they want, and Natalie says, “I don’t mean to beat up on feminism or anything,” and then she rationalizes her American Female Dream. In a way, both Alex and Natalie are showing where feminism has left the female body in the American workplace, and we see that literally in a tragically beautiful scene when Natalie sits alone in the middle of a room full of empty office chairs. This landscape provides her with nothing but a bunch of empty office furniture.

The shot with Natalie and the office chairs is one of many brilliant uses of mise-en-scène within the film. Reitman masterfully manipulates the environment of the movie to slowly build depth and address how class has affected Bingham’s character. The movie begins by playing out the smooth empty surfaces of Bingham’s life – his barebones bachelor’s apartment, the high tech gleam of airports, the minimalism of hotels, conference rooms and rental cars. The hollow exteriors of his environment echo the emptiness of Bingham’s lifestyle. As the movie builds, so do the set details. At first we just see close-ups of faces as Bingham fires people. But then the camera starts pulling back, and we start seeing the environment — the cubicles in the offices, the gutted corporate spaces with their empty desks, the snowy exterior of the Detroit auto plant.

As Bingham gains depth in the film, moving from surface caricature to real human depth that belies his class, so does his environment. When he returns to his home in Wisconsin, the movie completely shifts aesthetics. What once was filled with dehumanizing “simulated hospitality” is now overflowing with real people and the real stuff of people. Everything that Bingham has worked so hard to leave behind him is suddenly present at his sister’s wedding. The homey kitsch of the motel, the preschool at the church with its scattered toys and books, the wedding party with its bouquets of flowers littering the tables, Bingham’s high school with its display of photographs and trophies – these are real things with real human lives attached to them. And these lives are solidly working class as witnessed in the lines etched on Bingham’s older sister’s face or on the accepting naivety of his younger sister. The wedding scenes are not steeped in sentimentality but reality, as if Bingham is stepping into the lives of the people he has fired, and those people are his family. Bingham’s two sisters with their incredibly human faces that show the wear of their class are stark juxtapositions to the Samsonite smooth faces of Alex and Natalie. There is no travel in this world as seen in the cardboard image of the wedding couple which was photographed in places they will never see in their lives. This class shift, as beautifully portrayed via mise-en-scène, puts the final touches on Bingham’s character. When we realize what he is running from, we don’t feel pity or sentimentality, only a kind of devastating acknowledgement. This is the world we live in.

Devastating really is the bottom line of this movie. Though hilarious at many moments, Reitman never allows for an easy out through humor or sentimentality. He just keeps coming back to the sentiments of those opening scenes, that the opportunities promised by “this land” have been ripped out of the heart of the American workforce. As Bingham tries to stay in motion to keep from sinking, the motion of his life mirrors the motion of capital itself and an economy that that is moving and consolidating so fast that it is obliterating everyone in its path. Through its impeccable screenplay, editing, cinematography and casting, Up In The Air provides both a brutal critique of neoliberal economics but also an ode, a eulogy and a tribute to the decimated working class, and it shows the impossible options for survival in this culture. Bravo, Jason Reitman for truly creating a movie for our time.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini at gmail.com.

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