'Up in the Air' and Down to Earth
If there’s one film I’d like President Obama to see this month, it’s the new film by Jason Reitman “Up in the Air.” Seeing all those people laid off in the course of the film made me want to run out and start a jobs program.
“Up in the Air” is already generating Oscar buzz, and with good reason. This fascinating exploration of the joys and pitfalls of making connections, both literally and figuratively, is insightful, hilarious, and moving.
But it is the uncanny timeliness of the film that strikes the deepest chord, even though Reitman began adapting the script from the Walter Kirn novel of the same name six years ago.
The story focuses on corporate executive Ryan Bingham, played with amazing nuance and depth by George Clooney, who flies all over the country to fire people for employers too insensitive to handle this delicate task in a more personal manner.
The film uses footage of people who had actually been fired recently, who agreed to recreate those experiences in front of the camera. The raw pain in their faces is something most of us should be familiar with by now.
Who among us hasn’t known at least one person laid off in the past year?
Bingham is able to handle this difficult job because he keeps his eyes focused on a completely unrelated goal: he seeks to become only the seventh person to have flown 10 million miles on the same airline, earning him a very special elite status.
That goal becomes endangered when his boss tells him the company is going to start firing employees over the Internet instead of in person, thanks to a cost-saving plan by new hire Natalie Keener.
Keener, played with intelligence and humor by Anna Kendrick, maps out flow-chart scripts to “all possible responses” by people when they hear the news that their jobs are gone. But without personal experience in these matters, her plans fall woefully short.
So Bingham is tasked with showing Keener the ropes of firing people, and Bingham is forced to take Keener under his wing, instructing the enemy on how to replace himself.
Bingham is also forced to confront his own choice to live without attachment when his younger sister invites him to her wedding.
Bingham takes a chance and goes “plus one” with his mirror image, the woman Alex Gorman, played by Vera Farmiga, who has been living a somewhat parallel life, reveling, like Bingham, in the excitement of being always on the move, and finding every possible way to accumulate more of those frequent flyer miles.
The film has many laugh-out-loud moments along with surprising sensitivity, especially regarding the situations of the many who now face a turning point in their lives. There is no event so momentous as losing one’s job, and the film reminds us that at times like these, people are most in need of humanity, not technology, to help them over this hurdle.
The National Board of Review, the first prize of the pre-Oscar season, has showered the film with four awards for best screenplay, best actor (Clooney), best supporting actress (Kendrick) and best adapted screenplay.
Whether you love to fly or hate it, you’ll love being “Up in the Air” with Clooney for a couple of hours. Prepare for departure, and enjoy the ride.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era. She's also a movie buff.
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