Up in the Air soars on a beautiful Hollywood screenplay co-written by Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman. The movie is an ingenious blend of conflicting themes mirroring much of the roiled American present. The shards are fitted together within the frame of a classic American myth.
Up in the Air makes sense of today in a past-tense way.
George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a hired-gun corporate downsizer (he artfully bings ’em[ployees] out the company front doors and onto the street), a true smoothie, working as the star road man for an Omaha-based firm, Career Transition Consulting (what a perfect euphemism for Bearers of Bad Tidings in the Great Recession, eh?). Bingham is smugly very busy–it’s the best of times at CTC as he and his fellow downsizing sharks smell the blood of “surplus” employees of sinking manufacturing corporations. Bingham and his pack, feasting off the Recession miseries, are first cousins of the shark-like short sellers in the Financial Sector inclining toward declining behemoths. He travels all over America to announce in dreaded interviews to each poor soul in condemned crowds of dispensable workers that “your job is no longer available.” And Bingham is prideful of his artistry in the dread interviews in deftly imparting bad news as though it were almost good news, easing the Unfortunate out with quiet dispatch. A dubious hero, Clooney’s graceful, light-footed performance reminds of Cary Grant at his best.
Bingham is also a sought-after motivational speaker, dressed in beautifully tailored dark suits and smiling out from behind brass-plated podiums in packed hotel auditoriums, his message to free oneself from nearly all obligations and responsibilities and to be footloose. This is his bread-and-butter speech, honed and fine-tuned.
When we first see him, Bingham is thoroughly self-satisfied. Of course, we know that he is riding for a fall.
The classic American myth? The Open Road, of course. Bingham’s Open Road of today is up in the air at 30,000 feet in first class, as well as in airports in the Admiral’s Lounge, in suites in Airport Hiltons, and in sleek limousines. His great ambition, realized near the end of this fable, is to join the other six members of his airline’s “10 Million Mile Club.”
There are several sub-themes.
The movie is an homage to the modern high-tech high-flying Open Road: card swiping, kiosk ticketing, rolling-cart luggage, first-class cabins, relaxing above it all, preferred-customer airport clubs, room service, housecleaning, lounge-bar romantic encounters with female high fliers in power suits with whom you lock-in with Blackberries and iPods your next tryst at the Airport Hiltons your respective itineraries overlap (“St. Louis is the fewest, Ryan, but how about Pittsburgh on the third or Fort Worth on the fourth?” “Can’t, Sylvia, but what about Kansas City next Friday at five fifty?”), and new-product conventions and their boozy sumptuous buffets.
Ryan loves gazing down in Olympian contentment from his window seat upon the ragged and shabby provinces. Yes, the Seat Belt sign is off, his tie loosened, cart service underway, and he’s footloose and free, angelically voyaging above the madding crowds and the Satanic mills, on his way to another deft exercise of power.
Yes, Bingham the Binger, the Bingman, the Bingmeister, is Screwge in a Hitmansonian Litmas Peril for whom America On The Move isn’t quite Whitman’s Open Road of the 1800s or Huck and Jim’s Mississippi of those same 1800s or Humbert and Lolita’s Route 66 through the West of purple mountains and Wig Wam Motels of the late 1940s or Sal Paradise’s mad 1949 coast-to-coast travels in Kerouac’s On the Road or Holden Caulfield’s sojourns through New York City in the 1950s or Rabbit Angstrom’s frequent aborted escapes down a maze of southbound interstates from the Eisenhower to the George H. W. Bush years or Didion’s Maria Weyth aimlessly patrolling the LA freeways; but essentially it’s the same American adventure.
But now come the dramatic complications. Four women. Save one, they are not devoted to the Open Road. The one who is, isn’t nearly as footloose as Ryan. They are four paragons of the Female Ascendancy in America. (Has anyone told Larry Summers about those late-breaking data showing females trouncing males in science and math scores? Not only must he call Geithner now, but there’s this wounding too!) These four Earth Angels comprise two pairs of ascendent females, one middle aged and the other young. A two-act play with a happy conclusion when the foursome meet: girls’ night out. The four thrive in today’s America of the ever-more-prominent Heroine, her Perils no longer dire–none of distressed damsel Pauline’s railroad rails run through these tales! There’s Alex Goran (presumably “Alexandra” and, you’d suspect, likely to gore [some male] and run), a beautiful middle-aged high-powered businesswoman usually on travel and with whom Ryan carries on in the Airport Hilton in Kansas City on Fridays at five fifty p.m. (and in many other cities in this tale of many cities). There’s Ryan’s sister, Julie Bingham, a soon-to-be divorcee, an “empowered” fan of Oprah still living in the Midwest boondocks where Ryan grew up. The younger pair: Natalie Keener, a seemingly heartless twenty-something star just out of the Sloan School of Management or similar and already selling the CEO for whom Ryan works on the need to downsize Career Transition Consulting by chucking that expensive air travel and throwing employees overboard via the Internet: distance firing (a money-saving if heartless form of distance learning, i.e., you, a forsaken surplus worker, learn your position at the company “is no longer available” via impersonal video conferencing, the worst scenario Frequent Flier Ryan can imagine). And there’s Kara Bingham, Ryan’s neice about to be married; maybe she did some time at junior college, maybe not; it doesn’t matter.
So: the dramatic conflict is the wandering male versus the empowered woman. There is a stunning revelation about Alex near the end that creates a parable for the gender drama in today’s America. Natalie gets in touch with her deepest female self and discovers the Right Way. Julie and Kara shine some light in the down-and-out darkness of Great Recession days in the upper Midwest.
The screenplay tries hard to make Up in the Air Ryan’s conversion story, the mellowing of the man. He’s a selfish loner. He should feel empty and hollow because he hasn’t understood his true self. He’s an emotional midget. In fact, he can’t be a true loner owing to his sheer human nature as a needy groupie primate, can he?
But in the very last seconds of Up in the Air, that deal isn’t quite sealed.
See what you think about the final seconds. I think they’re as they should be.
This is a movie not to miss.