“Up in the Air” (2009)

I’m feeling ramble-y about this movie. Be warned.

People often use the term “arc” as a metaphor for the changes a character in a story goes through. Writers, mostly. And I’ve always pictured said arcs as a parabola, starting at one point, going up, up, up, peaking, then dropping down. Think the shape of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Watching “Up in the Air” reminded me that not all arcs go up.

Am I being ironic and cute? The title of the movie describes, after all, someone flying high over ground, looking down on all the rest of us. The “flyover states”. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a seasoned traveller who feels most at home when he’s in an airport or on a plane. He travels from place to place across the country and fires people for a living. This is the kind of soulless profit-driven job that has become a familiar starting point for emotional change in our movies. 60 years ago it was the traveling salesman who epitomized empty work; now we see lobbyists, contractors, day traders; they work for the minor corporations that serve the externalized needs of the major corporations, and actual human lives are just currency to them. Clooney’s charm made me feel uneasy about identifying with such a corporatist; I almost felt sorry for him, even before the story, and Bingham’s arc, began.

Bingham’s tidy, process-driven wandering is interrupted when a young, eager kid, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, who manages to embody the inner turmoil and exterior calm of many a corporate drone with just a tight purse of her lip or almost imperceptible roll of her eyes) comes up with the idea to use video conferencing to fire people and save traveling costs. This means the end of Bingham’s massive accrual of frequent flyer miles, and right as he’s about to reach his nearly meaningless goal: ten million “points” as a reward for his “loyalty” to a legal contract.

Of course, his “loyalty” has been paid with other people’s money, his expense account at the company, and not out of his own savings; Bingham is just a feeding tube through which passes abstracted value from one non-person to the next. And to earn those points, all he’s had to do is be the bearer of bad news and sit with each actual flesh-and-blood person while they break down, burst into anger, plead for another chance, pretended this isn’t happening, and, rarely, simply accept that their services are no longer required. His constant exposure to human emotion has made him sympathetic enough to realize that abstracting it even further with a computer screen may well be the breaking point. Or so it seems to me. Maybe Clooney’s charm won me over? After all, Bingham had a selfish reason to continue facing down his fellow corporate workers; his pointless goal of “loyalty” which will earn him status as one of only seven people to earn that many points.

This movie resonates with my growing passion against corporate institutions. Can you tell? I could deconstruct this movie for days, I think. And there may be some of you who find that interesting. But it’s also a movie, telling a story. And even though the director, Jason Reitman, is not a newbie director (he directed “Juno” and wrote and directed “Thank You For Smoking”, among others – that last one also about corporatist politics, though played as satire rather than straight drama, as in “Up in the Air”), he made some odd (to me) choices.

When I originally saw the trailer for this movie, it featured Clooney, as Bingham, giving a motivational speech. Here, let me show you it:

The monologue, with the sparse piano over it, and the flash of images, set a tone. Somber, serious, contrasting Clooney’s charisma with the sociopathic message of the words. To me it felt like a confession in a downtown bar on a weeknight, spoken over a drink or two – enough to get a buzz but not enough to really let go.

In the early part of the movie, when we first hear Bingham give this speech (he gives it, or a variation, three times by my memory throughout the course of the film), the music is much more upbeat. It’s a subtle difference but I noticed the change. It felt wrong, sitcom-like. The mood was off. I wondered if I had been tricked by the trailer and my man-crush on George Clooney into the wrong kind of movie.

When Bingham meets his female counterpart, frequent flyer Alex Goran (Vera Farmgia), spellbindingly beautiful and confident, a terrific match – again, with the tone-deaf music.

When Bingham flies back to the home office and has a meeting with his boss, and his boss is Jason Bateman, again I felt the tone was off. I love Bateman, but I love him for his comedic timing and snarky anger, which jarred, just a little, with what I hoped to be the intent of this movie. I felt a bit betrayed, and hoped that this wasn’t a comedy in the conventional, and classical, sense. I hoped for a deeper meaning and more mature tone to emerge.

Emerge it did, in the final half. Perhaps Reitman was aiming for contrast; I think I would have preferred a more consistent tone. This is a dark story, a classical tragedy, and, eventually, it arrived there.