Descent of a Frequent Flyer
(Up in the Air, 1/18/09)
By Nicholas Nicastro
a proposition for you: in exchange for a salary, I want you to devote
at least half your waking lifeeight to ten hours a dayto
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 performanceor 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
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 lifehis 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 spoilerUp in
the Air is too smart, and too painfully true, to let the trip end
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