Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Descent of a Frequent Flyer
(Up in the Air, 1/18/09)
By Nicholas Nicastro

Here's a proposition for you: in exchange for a salary, I want you to devote at least half your waking life—eight to ten hours a day—to making me rich. I want you to devote your time and energy to the tasks I assign to you, at the expense of your family and social life. I'm going involve you in nerve-wracking competitive evaluations with your peers, after which I might reward you for good performance—or I might not. You may get some health insurance, but I get to dictate the terms. A pension? Forget it. In exchange for the absolute loyalty I demand, I reserve the right to dump you from my payroll anytime I see fit. I might give you two weeks' notice.
      Do we have a deal?
      It's a good bet that many people wouldn't accept this arrangement if they believed they had a choice. Why folks submit to the unsustainable is a question oft-theorized about by culture critics, but we at least say there's a movie out now that perfectly captures its ramifications. Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is outwardly just an amiable romantic comedy by the guy who brought you Juno and Thank You For Smoking. It's really about the travails of living in a world of bogus conveniences and futile compromises, where floating above it all, disconnected, starts to look like an attractive option—almost.
      Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) makes his living firing people, and business is booming. In a downsizing economy, he spends more than three hundred days a year flying from city to city, administering the coup de grace to poor schmucks whose bosses are too chicken to do it themselves. It sounds like a miserable existence, but the kicker is that Ryan is happy: he's got life on the road down to a science, complete with all the tricks and privileges that come with being a "preferred customer." In short, he thrives on the kind of loyalty his clients fail to show their employees.
      Ryan is a vulture, but George Clooney is so good at being likeable it's hard to fault him. We even worry about him when the ironic happens: his company wants to start firing people over the internet, which would make all those blissful hours in planes and airport lounges unnecessary. What's to happen to his project of becoming the youngest man to accumulate ten million frequent flier miles?
      Actually, there's a lot more at stake in Up in the Air, particularly when two fetching women enter his life—his female counterpart Alex (Vera Farmiga), who is so low-maintenance she tells him to "think of me as yourself with a vagina", and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a newbie who just may convince him that some human connections are worth as much as a Hertz #1 Club Gold Card. A few weeks ago I suggested that Precious boasted the best ensemble performance of the year. I take that back now: between the silky smooth Clooney, the crackling fun Farmiga, and a surprisingly affecting Kendrick, Air plays just about perfectly.
      Something similar can be said of the script Reitman and Sheldon Turner have made from Walter Kirn's novel. When, near the end, we see Clooney running through the airport to claim his love, we're tempted to groan at what's become a visual cliché of romantic comedy. But rest assured this is no spoiler—Up in the Air is too smart, and too painfully true, to let the trip end there .

©2009 Nicholas Nicastro

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