Up in the Air opens, with a lot of promise, to the sound of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings singing Woody Guthrie’s famous song “This Land Is Your Land”.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who travels to workplaces around the country to fire people on behalf of bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. He is a “transition counsellor”. Walter Kirn, author of the book this film is loosely based on, said, “Ryan is like a masseur who comes in and sort of rubs your shoulders while rolling your desk chair into the elevator.”
As a sideline, Bingham delivers motivational speeches about the virtue of a relationship-free life, entitled “What’s In Your Backpack?” He cajoles those attending to empty theirs of their possessions, relationships, family and other emotional and physical baggage. Photos, he says, are just for people without memories. He relishes the comfort of being anonymous during his perpetual travels. He does not have a family life.
Bingham, it seems, loves his life on the move. He travels first class and dreams of becoming the seventh person to fly 10 million miles with American Airlines, which will give him corporate treatment on a level unknown to other fliers and his name on the side of a plane.
The film is set in today’s recession. One of Bingham’s colleagues states, “It’s one of the worst times for America. This is our moment.” The company Bingham works for is not immune to this. The boss decides that he will save millions if he stops his staff flying round the country sacking people face to face and instead uses computer links operated by call centre workers delivering a set text. This system is developed by new, young, go-getting employee Natalie Keener (played excellently by Anna Kendrick). As a result, his company chooses to ground all staff and keep them at the corporate headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. Bingham argues against this, saying that firing someone needs a personal touch “to send them on their way” and so is paired up with Keener for her to learn his way of sacking people.
During their travels, Bingham is forced to confront his loner identity, to reassess his previously non-existent relationship with his family and decide where he wants his relationship with fellow frequent flyer Alex to go.
Throughout the film there are talking heads of people who have been made redundant, either face to face or by computer. Director Jason Reitman used real people who had recently been sacked in these roles. They were asked to either repeat how they had reacted to being told they were fired, or how they wished they had reacted. The first time they are shown, they go through the range of emotions – anger, why me?, what am I going to tell my kids? – and you feel that the film has the potential to look seriously at the impact of recession on people’s lives.
Unfortunately Up in the Air, although good, doesn’t quite live up to this potential. Although well acted and scripted, with some excellent comic moments, it left me feeling slightly frustrated.
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