By Dennis Hayes
Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is one of those rare films that deals with contemporary working life. It focuses on the impact of the recession in the US, even using recently-unemployed people to give the fictional story a docudrama quality. Despite the grim theme of ‘corporate downsizing’ or what we used to call sacking people, it’s an entertaining and at times very funny film. Reitman has said that he finds comedy everywhere, even when it’s inappropriate, and it shows throughout this film.
In its portrayal of how companies fail to manage and buy in experts to do their dirty work, it is also accurate. Ryan calls them ‘cowards who don’t have the courage to sack their own employees.’ These cowards buy in consultants from the Omaha-based ‘Career Transition Counseling’ who meet face to face with employees about to be made redundant and help them accept the life changing possibilities that open up when their position is ‘no longer available.’ Ryan is one of these ‘career transition counselors’—he talks to one employee like an American evangelist: ‘I’m a wake-up call. This is a rebirth!”
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is an anti-Odysseus. Odysseus’ one desire is to return to Ithaca, and his wife and son. Exactly the opposite of the Greek hero, Ryan can go home to a sparse Omaha apartment, but chooses not to. He lives in hotels 322 days a year, spending only ‘43 miserable days at home.’ He doesn’t want a family, preferring one night stands in hotels to any relationship. His aim is the privileges that flow from becoming number seven on the list of people who have flown ten million air miles. The humour is often about airports. Ryan: ‘Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip on shoes. Gotta love ‘em.’ Natalie: ‘That’s racist.’ Ryan: ‘I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s faster.’
‘Up in the air’ is a pun that describes both Ryan’s life and the uncertainties of people’s jobs and futures in a recession. The tension in the film is provided by the ironic threat to his roving life and the slick counselling he offers because of a cheaper video link approach to sacking developed by the young Nathalie Keener played by Anna Kendrick. The clash personifies another contemporary feature of working life that concerns many employees, namely how they are treated at work or when their working lives are about to end. Employers now know and value their employees and it has become too hateful to sack them in the new, friendly, life-balancing workplace. The message of the battle between the Ryan and Anna is that you should treat people sensitively, even when making them redundant. It is a challenge that many workers and all human resource managers take seriously. Sacking by video, like sacking by email or text, is not acceptable.
Romantic interest is provided by Ryan’s relationship with Alex Goran played by Vera Farmiga. This ‘clever’ naming it makes you wonder if ‘Ryan’ is a reference not to the famous Ryan that was the Lindbergh’s plane, but to ‘Ryan Air.’ Any European watching the film is bound to wonder if it is some deep, ironic reference to Ryan Air’s fabled approach to industrial relations? You don’t notice any of this during the film. Alex is the female counterpart to Ryan, the anti-Penelope to his anti-Odysseus, a businesswoman who loves travelling and hotels and tells Ryan, ‘I am the woman you don’t have to worry about. Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.’ This is grown-up wit.
The substantial part of this intelligent and adult film treats an interesting social subject with humour and describes an unusual and successful relationship between two adults. That is until Ryan goes to his sister’s wedding and uses his counselling skills on a reluctant groom. From that point, the film depressingly crashes into sentimentality and the promotion of traditional and conservative values. Ryan cracks up and walks out at the beginning of a major conference presentation. He wants to marry Anna, but she is married with children. The video firing is abandoned. Natalie moves to another job and seems a reformed character. We leave Ryan getting ready to back up in air once more immobile, staring at a huge constantly changing departure board. He has become Odysseus, but has no home to go to.
There are two moments that give the film’s conservative message away and which we can easily lose in our laughter. First, in a film full of product placement, the only reference to unions is a glimpse of a sticker on a window as a sacked worker walks out. It carries the message ‘union’ with a strong tick beside it. A collective response to kindly or unkind sacking seems inconceivable, as perhaps it is. The second is the last sequence of talking heads of sacked workers. All are real people. They muse on how, in the end, all that matters is your family and their support.
Up in the Air, with all its style and humour, is a well-crafted piece of transition counselling for the audience that uses humour to ensure we do not want to dream about material wealth and live with our head in the clouds, but go home to our husbands, wives, and children. Let’s hope that when the audience stop their therapeutic laughing, they take off again and keep collecting their air miles!
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/