Wednesday, December 9, 2009



What's the value of human contact? Is it a part of our lives that we need indispensably? Or is it, in fact, something that can hold us back, tie us down, and inevitably kill us. Do we need to have people in our lives to help us through it? Or might we be better off if we only had to worry about ourselves and the task at hand? If George Clooney's character Ryan Bingham is to be believed, human relationships are overrated, and if you give him five minutes to talk to you, he'll prove it.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for a firm that subcontracts him out to terminate corporate employees. He is sent from city to city to do just one thing—sit across the table from you, tell you you're fired, and hand you a folder. To say he has it down to a fine science is an understatement. At this point in his career, he's surgical.

He's quite happy being on the road 322 days a year. His friends are stewardesses. His home is a preferred passengers’ lounge. Unfortunately, his corporate nirvana is about to be upset. His firm has hired a crackerjack efficiency expert named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She stands up and trumpets the future—a business model where these professional termination experts don't fly from place to place handing out pink slips; they do it all by webcam. Ryan is unconvinced that she knows that of which she speaks. He convinces his boss of this just enough to provoke a training exercise. She'll go with him from town to town, business to business, seeing just what it's like to look at the person across the table and find an eloquent way to say, "You're fired."

Keener is a sudden, strong female presence that causes waves for this man who fancies his life is an island. And she isn't the only strong female presence. In a hotel bar, Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). She is cut from the same cloth as Ryan. She has a taste for executive perks and just like Ryan, has the air of a shark that must keep moving or die. She and Ryan have an instant chemistry, sharing a flirtation and seduction unlike anything you've ever seen in the movies but just as hot.

Between his desire for Alex and his mentoring of Natalie, Ryan's life philosophy is about to be put to the test.

UP IN THE AIR comments on the state of the North American economy by focusing on the fact that people are being fired. This is actually quite an effective theme as in watching this film, you realize that there are entire businesses out there dedicated to ending people's careers. They succeed in the same unfortunate way that funeral parlors succeed. It sucks, but it's true.

What UP IN THE AIR does especially well is make us understand the difficult tact one has to take to fire an employee. Clooney is good at it. He doesn't even look employees he is firing in the eye when he says, "That's the truth," but they believe him anyway. The techniques of termination on display in this movie are surgical and yet human at the same time.

By comparison, where it gets inhumane and pretty damned cold is when Natalie's plan to terminate employees by webcam starts getting tested. It's right down there with getting dumped by text message.

Unfortunately, UP IN THE AIR tries to be a lot more than that and in so doing, tries to be too many things. The movie seems to lose its way when it finally makes Ryan cave and give in to the nagging voice in the back of his head that thinks personal relationships might not be so bad. This leads him not only to reach out to Alex (a device that works), but also to his sisters (a device that doesn't). The family plotline takes Ryan down a predictable path and one that seems a tad implausible. I liked this film, but I think that had this element not been added to the story, I would have loved it.

When Ryan tells us how much he enjoys the life he has made, I believe him. Hell, the guy could tell me the sky is yellow, and I'd probably believe him. The character has clearly gone to the Nick Naylor school of talking, and holds an honors degree. Hearing someone say they dislike being home might sound ludicrous until you see how barren and empty he actually keeps his home. Perhaps it’s this part of his life that causes me to trip over the choices Ryan makes in the film's final act. He grows and goes through a lot of introspection, but the choices he makes don't feel like choices he would make.

Hell, I don't even know if they are choices I would make!

Bumpy landing and all, UP IN THE AIR succeeds with what it wants to say about connections. It serves as a reminder that in an age of text messaging, twittering, and *ahem* blogging, there is no substitute for human contact. True, many of us may walk through the airports of our lives with far too much baggage for such a pedestrian trip. However what the movie understands best, is that it isn't the travelling that matters; it is indeed the travelers that travel with us.

-The Mad Hatter

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