Buckle in folks, return your tray tables to their locked upright positions and prepare for some hard landing truth from Up In The Air about the crushing meaninglessness of our so-called lives. You may be moved to put aside your Blackberry a few moments to look another human in the eye and have a non virtual, i.e. real moment. In the new Jason Reitman film, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a zen-like business uber-traveler. Oozing a fastidious zest, he fires entire offices of aggrieved, devastated workers in St. Louis and Albuquerque, and gives seminars on traveling with nothing in your metaphorical backpack, with no messy human attachments (the insane creepiness of his seminar philosophy alone is worth admission). His every move through airports and hotel concierge lines is practiced and serene. He shacks up with sexy elite card travelers like Alex, played by the smoldering Vera Farmiga, who has more sex appeal than most eye candy actresses half her age.
Bingham’s world is shaken when Natalie, an ambitious fresh face (Anna Kendrick), moves his company toward travel free video firings. Bingham schools Natalie in the verbal judo of dealing with distraught downsizees, and Natalie challenges Bingham on the emptiness of his no attachments lifestyle. Bingham attends the wedding of his estranged sister and gets closer to Alex, and starts to question his choices. To say much more about the plot gets into spoiler territory.
The movie is based on the novel by the skilled Walter Kirn, whose well-crafted characters provide a sturdy backbone to this character driven movie. Clooney is convincing in a role probably as close to the real Clooney, the committed bachelor and bon vivant, as any he has played. His character Bingham excels at solo traveling and firing people, and he proudly makes no apologies, yet we don’t really hold it against him. There is a cobbled together feel within the movie, of people living via airport snack bars, hotels, denatured meeting rooms, and short term relationships with a business casual feel. The narcotic of techno time suck — the constant stimulation of cell phones, laptops and digital assistants — is thick in the air. That Bingham has found a way to find familiarity and meaning (oh, the joy of accumulated flyer miles!) is somehow understandable, as if the impersonal world with its corporate cruelty would swamp him should he let down his guard. But we sense he is vulnerable too. His job is just as precarious to change, his apartment a lonely box without warmth.
The movies strengths are its sharp insights, an inspired cast and a timeliness with the pains of the great recession (real unemployed people are used in several scenes). That young whippersnapper Natalie is the catalyst for Bingham’s company changing to video conferencing seems a stretch, but a minor forgivable one. The movie seems to suggest none of us are safe in the compartmentalized and downsized world. All of us are a pink slip or a breakup text away from being thrown aside, and even the most stalwart survivors among us will have to reach out to other human beings.