Traveling Light

The Oscar-nominated 'Up in the Air'

Rather like Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election), the young director Jason Reitman lodges his movies and their protagonists in a zone of tantalizing ambiguity. His nervy debut, Thank You for Smoking, presented a shamelessly amoral flack for the tobacco industry, then confounded us by making him likable. What to make of an energetic, smiling, and affable guy who loves his kid, likes people...and spends his days hawking the harmful lies of the Tobacco Institute? Juno, Reitman’s box-office-busting, Oscar-grabbing second film, offered a more straightforward take on character, but it too had a mixed, perhaps even mixed-up, tone and feel. Conflating satire with realism and judgment with empathy, Reitman’s films roll by on a curious mix of comic-book yuks, breezily pleasant misanthropy, and unexpected moments of heartfelt directness.

Up in the Air depicts more plane take-offs and landings than a pilot training film. You may feel as if you’ve stumbled into an ad for American Airlines—right down to the mustachioed, grandfatherly, Sully Sullenberger–like chief pilot who traipses back into business class to congratulate ultra-peripatetic businessman Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on achieving his ten-millionth flying mile. The film’s relentless product placement (Hilton Hotels deserves a co-Oscar for Most Ubiquitous Product) is apt, since Up in the Air charts lives lived wholly within the gleaming empyrean of corporate culture. As in Thank You for Smoking, Reitman gives us a protagonist whose job title alone, with its grievous euphemism—“Transition Specialist”—should tell us what to make of him. A hired hatchet man for companies who outsource their firing, Bingham jets around the country delivering bad news to unfortunate employees. In these tough times, the transition business is booming. Bingham is the Great Recession’s Grim Reaper.

Except that he isn’t grim. Bingham loves his job and the life it sponsors. Not the money—he seems to own nothing beyond some expensive suits and carry-on bags. What he loves is the structure of his life: the constant movement, the rootlessness, the dazzling generic architecture of the corporate nonplaces he inhabits. Unmarried and movie-star handsome (!), on the road over three hundred days a year, he’s an aloof figure to his sisters, a practiced womanizer, and a figure of cruel glamour to the bedraggled and despairing people he fires. His well-practiced spiel to them is all evasion and platitude: “This is not an assessment of your productivity.... Your job is no longer available.... You should not take this personally.... Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now.”

Bingham has collected his hatchet-man’s pearls of wisdom into a motivational talk—called “What’s in Your Backpack?”—tailored to the dreary realities of our downsizing age. In it he touts the virtues of portability. “We weigh ourselves down until we can’t move,” he tells his audiences, “and make no mistake, moving is living.” Flashing his pearly whites, he challenges listeners to “imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. Kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?”

Is Bingham coldly villainous, a monster of cynicism, or does he believe what he’s saying? Just when we think Reitman is preparing the character to roast in a special compartment of hell, something happens to complicate our understanding. Firing a fifty-five-year-old midlevel manager (played by the always fascinating J. K. Simmons), Bingham soothes the man’s rage by reminding him that he long ago went to cooking school—apparently Bingham has taken the trouble to read the man’s CV—and dreamed of being a chef. Might not his job crisis be a way back to those dreams? The tactic sparks a moment of succor: the man is calmed. Yet what really are the chances of such a dream working out for a fifty-five-year-old with two teenage daughters to support? Is this just a snow job, or is Bingham being truly kind? What to make of him when—confronted by his company’s new plan to fire people by teleconference—he argues for the importance of human contact, insisting that “there’s a dignity to what I do”?

But there isn’t, really. Any dignity on hand here resides in the words and faces of the workers Bingham fires. We see them first in their “transition” sessions, and then again in subsequent documentary-style interviews, discussing the anguish, shame, and dislocation of losing their jobs. Many of these roles are played by actual fired workers, whom Reitman contacted through newspaper ads. In the hands of another director, the contrast between Clooney’s perfect, unreal handsomeness and the schlumpy homeliness of the people he fires might conduce to condescension or worse. But somehow Reitman manages to turn this around, so that the fired workers, with their eloquent pain and their real faces—pudgy, angry, tear-stained—heighten the sense of Bingham’s glossy unreality, his shallowness, and ultimately the moral calamity his life represents. He is all face, all smile, and nothing more. Never before have Clooney’s good looks been put to such ironic good use, to his character’s detriment.

 Which is not to say that this film feels moralistic or heavy-handed. Far from it. Up in the Air exudes the same jaunty, up-tempo cynicism that powered Thank You for Smoking. It’s fun to watch. Indeed, it’s so much fun that you have to wonder about Reitman as a satirist. Is he angry enough? There is an artful intellectuality to this satire, a drollery that feels as much European as American (I thought of Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl, for instance). When Bingham meets and seduces the sublimely sexy Alex (Vera Farmiga)—like him, a champion corporate traveler—their seduction scenes are wittily stitched together with sexual innuendo spun from frequent-flyer miles, romantic banter over rental-car services, the rapid-fire codified lingo of airport abbreviations, and so on. Still sweaty from their first tryst, the two pull out laptops and simultaneously clack away, posting their next planned tryst on their calendars. This and many other scenes are framed with neatly comical symmetry by photographer Eric Steelberg, who delivers one nifty visual joke after another.

Reitman’s movies are neatly and pleasurably executed ideas—high-concept conceits that succeed despite, or perhaps through, their being not entirely fleshed out. “You’re so cool, Mr. Empty Backpack,” Alex says to Bingham, and the movie itself has the same ambiguous tone, somewhere between taunting and affection. What we groove on is the look and feel of clean emptiness, smoothly rolling wheels on the carry-on bags, smoothly rolling wheels on the planes at landing, everything maximized for efficiency and played to zippy background music, eliciting in us a perverse pleasure in the sheer brio of this look at a brazenly empty and morally benighted life.

What kind of man is Bingham, really and finally? The film raises the question, but then dismisses it—or at least doesn’t give us much with which to answer it in any realistic way (for instance, his rented apartment lacks even a single personal object on any wall or bureau). Reitman stays insistently on the surface, and Bingham becomes, in the end, less a “real” character than an avatar of our parlous moment of late-phase capitalism, or whatever it is we are in right now. Character as metaphor, as personification: that’s hard to pull off—it would be on my top-ten list of student writing errors—yet Reitman and his co-writer, Sheldon Turner, largely succeed. How they do so remains a bit of a mystery. This is an odd movie in which polar interpretations continually offer themselves, moments of unlikely redemption arise, only to collapse; and in the predictable but surprisingly powerful end, Bingham, the eternal traveler, goes absolutely nowhere. The film’s mix of the real and the cartoonish produces something that isn’t quite satire and isn’t quite tragedy either. I’m hardpressed to say whether this is a virtue or a flaw. Reitman keeps us guessing what’s in his backpack. That is probably a good thing.

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At the end of the movie, we begin to see in Clooney's once camera-perfect face the physical signs of age that can't be ignored plus the lonelimess and a hint of desperation. Soon, the character will no longer be the attractive stranger that women gravitate to.

To me, Bingham's the literal embodiment of The Flying Dutchman -- a ghost ship that can never go home, doomed to sail the oceans forever.

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.