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Up in the Air

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Released 2010. Director: Jason Reitman

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE A JOB FIRING PEOPLE? That’s what Ryan Bingham does for a living. He’s a termination facilitator from a company hired by other companies to lay off their own employees. These are gutless corporations, their Human Resource Departments and the respective department managers have to hire someone else – strangers – to do the dirty job for them. Looking at Ryan’s lifestyle, it’s obvious that the fees don’t come cheap. Talk about cutting costs in an economic downturn, paying good money to do something you can do yourself. Such cold, impersonal, heartless practice – maybe America deserves to be in the ditch.

But hey, back to the movie. Up in the Air is actually quite wonderful and completely deserving of its Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay (from Walter Kirn’s novel). I’m saying this as a fair assessment of the quality of its writing which raises several interesting themes wrapped in a romantic comedy packaging. Job security, unemployment, choices, loyalty, empathy, connection.... Up in the Air may feel like a breezy movie, that’s because its makers are so adroit at tackling socially relevant themes through a soft focus lens.

As the title suggests, this man Ryan Bingham, suave, rich, articulate, sophisticated, first-class high-flyer, is anything but grounded. He spends a huge amount of his time on the road (or rather, in the air), zig-zagging across the continent, living out of his functionally packed luggage, fully at ease at airport lounges and Hilton rooms. The few days he’s actually at home in his rented one-bedroom apartment, he’s miserable.

Ryan Bingham is suspended mid-air because he can’t, or won’t, see that his choice of lifestyle is leaving a gap of emptiness in his soul. The man is emotionally guarded though extremely charming, intelligent and flirtatious, distant from his family and seemingly without any close friends.

When the realisation dawns on him that there’s more to a casual relationship, the woman in question (Alex, another jet-setting executive herself) is unable to take it further. Even though Ryan and Alex very eloquently illustrate the ideal of an unattached life to a junior who completely espouses the traditional family paradigm, in the end we find out that one’s been untruthful, and the other is doubtful.

Behind its light, upbeat and shiny gloss, Up in the Air seems to be casting an ever so slight judgement on singlehood. Are we supposed to take it as a gentle yet shrewd hit at people who choose to be single? It’s not a harsh view by any means, given that the character of Ryan is created and developed in such a way that it’s only logical he’d simply dust himself off and move on.

As a counter-balance to Ryan’s philosophy, his energized novice Natalie, who is full of new ideas and couldn’t stop talking, sacrifices a dream job, follows her heart (and her boyfriend) to Nebraska, only to be dumped. She’s all for the socially-sanctioned pathway of marriage, family, kids and happily ever after, yet reality deals her a wake-up call.

The script adaptation by Reitman and Sheldon Turner is crisp and enlightening. Not quite condescending, more like a nudge in its questioning of choices, values and priority. The acting is uniformly top-shelf. Clooney and Vera Farmiga are both excellent, alternating between seductiveness and brutal honesty. This is an emotionally rich role for Clooney and he knows when to convey, and when to distance himself to make the right pitch. Anna Kendrick’s character is a foil because she’s the young acolyte. Her function is to contrast Clooney’s and Farmiga’s experienced outlooks in life and career. So she’s suitably lively, talky and showy when necessary.

The more you think about it, the more it would appear that Up in the Air is a contemplative social commentary, cleverly checked in as a romance for a smooth take-off.


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