Sunday, December 27, 2009
Use Caution: Contents May Have Shifted
I travel for a living. Literally. I cannot be really said to be working unless I'm flying. So I was intrigued right from the get-go about Jason Reitman's new film Up In the Air since it seemed to be playing in my sandbox.
Well, it is and it isn't. Based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, the film tells the story of Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a professional "terminator," as it were, a man hired by companies to do the dirty business of letting their employees go (he works for a firm that specializes in this unfortunate task). In the pursuit of these grim duties Bingham spends 320 nights away from home and logs around 350,000 frequent flier miles every year. At least part of the film's setup involves Bingham's immersion into this world of travel, and he literally thinks of the world of airline and hotel hospitality as his "home." Most of my working life is spent in this same setting, and it's fascinating to see a spotlight trained on what I've always though of as an oddity in my existence relative to that of my family and friends.
But while I enjoy my life on the road, I certainly don't think of it as my home; and I'm not sure I'd enjoy it nearly so much if I didn't have the anchor of home keeping me upright. The potential pitfalls and / or deficiencies in thinking of the airline and hospitality industries as one's home might be readily apparent to nearly everybody, and so we might see a personal crisis on the approach long before it arises. Not Mr. Bingham, apparently.
In his own firm's efforts to save money, an efficiency expert is brought in with the idea of doing the company's fire-for-hire work over the internet, via webcam. Natalie Keener (played by Anna Kendrick) is a recent college grad, a brilliant young woman who has sacrificed better job prospects to follow her boyfriend to the relative backwater of Omaha, where she lands a job with Bingham's company. She's young and ambitious and very smart, but Bingham--stung by the prospects of his airborne life being grounded--insists her efficiency improvements betray a lack of understanding of what the job of firing strangers really entails. And so she is sent on the road with Bingham, immersed in his odd world of gold cards and personal tragedy and "feauxmy" hospitality (pronounced "foamy," a mixture of faux and homey).
It's really a trio piece between Clooney, Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex Goran, a fellow business traveler who becomes Bingham's itinerant lover as their paths criss-cross across the country (sometimes with a little help). All three of these characters are beautifully and clearly drawn for us, the bonds between Bingham and Goran, and between Bingham and Keener, existing each in their own insular little bubble--even when they're all three together. Farmiga's Alex exudes sharp intelligence and sensuality, and her scenes with Bingham are witty and luscious. Likewise Ms. Kendrick, who beautifully captures Natalie Keener's tightly-wound, set-jawed ambition and her naivety; her story is self-contained and yet she brings the pin that threatens to deflate Bingham's world.
This is all wonderfully acted, but what makes it ultimately work is the strength of George Clooney's characterization. He has a much tougher job to do than the other two, selling us on an intelligent 50-something man who prefers a life almost entirely on the road, a gregarious man who yet intentionally steers clear of situations where he will have to make lasting bonds with anyone, a man who has become a stranger to his own siblings. And the actor's job is not made easier by playing a character who fires people for a living--a job that seemingly never gets under his skin. What kind of man could do this work? And especially, what kind of person could do this without some kind of emotional support network? How do you play a guy like this without making him seem like a sociopath?
Well, I don't know if it's just the dazzling perfection of the man's looks or the absolute confidence with which he plays even the scenes where he's foundering--or the writing or Reitman's direction--but Clooney absolutely nails the part. He's like Oscar Peterson, seemingly incapable of hitting a wrong note. The questions about whether a person can really live as Bingham does are, unsurprisingly, the central theme of the story; but all credit to the film that we believe the opening premise, a necessary precondition for the denouement to follow. Vera Farmiga's Alex Goran is Bingham's partner in crime here, someone who seems to match his tastes and values. But her story ends up being much more mundane than his, a track running closely parallel to his own that looks like the same track until we get up close. Then we see that she is on the edge and his track is floating out over nothing at all. She is the oddly trans-world link between the hard reality of young Natalie Keener trying to make a life with her boyfriend in an apartment in Omaha and Ryan Bingham floating out in the marketing ether.
After the fact, I just have trouble buying into someone making a wholehearted embrace of all the marketing tripe that attaches like a school of remoras to the body of business travel. But I think it was Twain who admonished us not to let facts stand in the way of a good story. And, to be fair, if we look closely we see that the oddities of Ryan Bingham's life do not end there. He's not meant to be everyman.
No matter. It's a coherent enough story--a sad and human story--and it's beautifully made and presented for us. I was completely entranced. I see lots of my own life here: the obsessing about how to pack for security, the sounds and smells of life in a string of hotels, the constantly varying views out my office window, the odd sense of the country that follows on from seeing so many of its individual places. But that's not really what the story is about. This is about meaning and attachment and priorities.
And those seem like good things to make a film about.