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Thus far, Jason Reitman is three for three and has managed to make the dramedy relevant again. In Thank You For Smoking and Juno, Reitman tackles the tobacco industry and teenage pregnancy without beating the audience over the head with the righteous stick or presenting epiphanies that change the characters from concrete villains to saccharine heroes. His characters are flawed, and thus, they are human.
Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is no different. In the court of public opinion, his job would probably be branded ignoble—travelling around the country firing people for companies who do not have the heart (or courage) to wield the axe. Reitman’s timing couldn’t be more perfect given that the unemployment rate in this country is hovering around ten percent; as such, Up in the Air offers a commentary on the nobility of big business in general. Since fifty to sixty hours a week spent with any group of people is often more than is spent awake with family denoted by blood, why wouldn’t employers be imagined as an avuncular extended family? Bingham’s position exposes this illusion and fashions employees as cogs in a machine that are expendable and replaceable, which is not necessarily original, and is really a refashioning of Marx’s notion of mechanized workers.
Refreshingly, Bingham is not a cold-hearted hangman; instead, he understands the emotional severity of his position and genuinely attempts to council each “let-go” employee onto a path of re-birth that evades self-destruction and depression. In other words, he masks the callowness of the company with genuine sympathy, which simultaneously connects him with the audience.
Moreover, Bingham lives a life that outwardly avoids compartmentalization and represents an unbound, free existence. While he has a home—one that he lives in forty days a year and is empty with the exception of a refrigerator stocked with Jim Beam-airplane bottles—his key ring consists of dozens of hotel keycards that unlock a myriad of more familiar front doors. Likewise, the families that others propagate are replaced by airline associates, stewardesses (or are they flight attendants now?), and hotel clerks who are prompted to greet Ryan with a welcoming smile. Bingham is entirely mobile and never has to feel settled or grounded. The baggage he carries is literal and carry-on (it saves thirty minutes a trip and one full week a year; also, you should always stand behind the Asians when waiting to be screened)—he is even a public speaker who addresses the benefits of avoiding relationships because they serve to weigh you down.
At the same time, Up in the Air explores the dichotomy of this freedom in that it also fosters isolation. Bingham has no real connection with anyone aside from those who check his tickets and offer him more miles toward “the number he has in mind that [he] hasn’t reached yet.” When he finally allows himself to connect with a Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman whom he sees as his undulating equal, the relationship is destined to fail because for her, Bingham is an escape from the socially-impelled reality that she has set up for herself in Chicago.
The opening credits offer a view from the cockpit of an airplane, interspersed are shots of the ground below; from twenty-thousand feet we glimpse farms and tract housing, all compartmentalized by roads and street— paths impelled by and for the purpose of commerce. From the beginning, Reitman subtly questions whether or not Bingham’s life differs from our own. How secure are we in the relationships we establish? Are we fooling ourselves into believing in the security that a job and family imply? Does family provide collective security or individual security—is family equivalent to a familiar place to store one’s toothbrush? Finally, while Bingham is illustrated as a compartmentalized individualist, how collectivized are we who watch him?
If I were my shrink, I would suggest that asking questions is a similar way in which I avoid facing difficult and potentially discomforting answers. And perhaps this is what Reitman intends. He doesn’t augur the end of civilization; we are not all doomed to become automatons. Though, it’s difficult to watch this film without appreciating our individual sources of security while envying Bingham’s freedom—even if it is illusory. Up in the Air leaves us flying in the same cockpit, gazing on a cloud-paved horizon, sailing serenely in a vacuum.
Taken from: www.doyoulikemoviesaboutgladiators.com
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