Whether or not it is a “film for our time”, Jason Reitman captures the sadness and rather existential adrift-ness of working life in Up in the Air. The movie is not precisely a tragedy – for there is a lot of fun and smiles as the story unfolds, but it is not a comedy either, as the stakes involved are too high. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a guy who works for a contractor basically – other firms hire this firm to lay off employees, he is a traveling anti-salesman. That it’s a Grim Reaper-ish job is obvious, but Bingham is not without humanity. After all, someone has to do it – so might as well do it correctly. This creates a very itinerant sort of existence. He has family, but they hardly see him. He has a home, or does he? There is a fellow road warrior sort he sees from time to time. They have a chemistry. I’ve done the traveling consultant thing before – I am sure people enjoy it – I think it sucks. So the idyll he has is not something I fully understand. When his world is shattered, by his firm effectively insourcing the process – firing these folks remotely – he is not only adrift, but forced to show a youngster the ropes.
What follows is a movie where moment after moment is right. The familiarity of Clooney and Alex (the other warrior – played by Vera Farmiga) is casual but comfortable. The scene where the youngster and the two others go out to a tech conference party is spot on – indeed the choice of entertainment at the party is EXACTLY the sort of artist that sort of show in 2010 would get. I liked the attention to detail there. When the young woman talks about family and being on schedule, and describing her boyfriend in terms of essentially NFL scouting combine sorts of metrics, I appreciated it – friends of mine discuss dating mates in the same weird demographic terms. Especially right in that scene is how Clooney ever so imperceptibly reaches to speak when the woman gets back to yammering.
Of course, in true cinematic fashion, the chemistry gets tested between Bingham and Alex. They meet on the road, talk, shack up, whatever. But Bingham wonders if there is more. Does this road warrior thing satisfy him? With a chance to come home, what is home? As one surmises, he uses a weekend to take Alex with him to a family function. We meet the family who has moved on with Bingham as a stranger – and we see him take Alex through the haunts of his childhood. Fortunately, Reitman is a director who is alive and not on autopilot – we have some ideas where this must go, but Reitman takes us somewhere else, and we realize THIS is where it had to go after all. In particular the final scene between Ryan and Alex is touching. In some ways Alex’s words to Ryan about himself are true albeit sanctimonious – there is a possibility she is lying about herself (or delusional) – and to Reitman’s credit he lets it marinate. The final notes are bittersweet, inconclusive, but much more satisfying than comparable bilge that passes as modern American film.