Beware: Here be spoilers!
There is a crucial moment in Up in the Air when Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) finds himself having to talk someone out out of a course of action. It doesn’t help that the other man’s beliefs echo what he has been preaching all these years. Bingham even moonlights as a self-help speaker who extols the virtues of carrying little or no baggage. And here he is, having to sell the exact opposite. Clooney expresses this conflict with admirable economy — his normally relaxed facial muscles tighten up a bit, and his eyes do the rest.
The scene itself is reminiscent of a similar one in Reitman’s earlier Thank you for Smoking, where a tobacco lobbyist is asked whether he would be okay with his son wanting to smoke.The more basic Jason Reitman signature — smart, sassy people trying to keep their equanimity and sense of humour intact while their world seems to fall apart — is in evidence throughout the running time.
Bingham is employed by a company that provides termination services. In other words, he fires people on behalf of managers who are too squeamish to deal with large scale layoffs. In times like these, business is booming. “We are here to make limbo tolerable,” he remarks to a colleague at one point. “To ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to point where hope is dimly visible, and to stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.”
It is clear from watching him that he loves his job. More importantly, he loves what comes with it — over 300 days of travel in a year, and more frequent flyer miles than it would take for a return trip to the moon. At one point, when a pilot asks him in mid-air where he lives, he replies, “Here.” Jason Reitman establishes this character and his world through a series of shots that could serve as a how-to manual for frequent travellers. And then proceeds to gently tug at the rug under his feet.
The first tug comes in the form of Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent traveller he meets in a hotel bar and shares a certain kinship with. Here is a woman who wants the same things out of a relationship as he does — the absence of strings. But tell me this: have you ever, EVER watched a movie where a man and a woman want a relationship without commitment and feel that way right until the end?
The second comes in the form of Natalie Keener, a bright young college graduate who comes up with the idea of firing people over a webcam. The cost implications are so enormous that Bingham’s boss cannot ignore it, but our man argues successfully that she has no idea what the job involves. So the boss does the obvious thing — ask Nataie to tag along with Bingham and learn the ropes before implementing her new system.
The third tug comes from his family. His sister sends him a cut-out of herself and her fiance and asks him to take pictures of that cutout in front of famous landmarks in the places he visits. Tacky, yes. Bingham agrees. The cutout doesn’t quite fit into his baggage. You know what that means.
Diverse as they seem, they represent, in essence, a single major complication in Bingham’s life: people. What these people have done is simply enter his orbit, and in doing so, changed it. Clooney depicts the effect these factors have on his life by doing… nothing, really. And yet, the scenes are written in such a way that you know what he’s feeling without him having to act it out. As a result, when he does let it show, the effect is startling.
What Up in the Air does is combine the cynicism of Thank You for Smoking with the emotional arc of Juno. The result is a movie that keeps you chuckling for most of the time but leaves you with a sad aftertaste. The closing shot is of Bingham staring at the departures listing at an airport. This is the first time you see him doing it. Until then, he always seemed to know where to go.