Monday, February 01, 2010

Up in the Air

[Spoiler alert! This post is written assuming that readers will have seen the film, or won’t mind learning key plot points. Enjoy—the FS]

Many of the December and January holiday season’s most popular films seemed strangely woman-centered, or perhaps just old stories suddenly told from what seems to be a woman’s perspective. In Up in the Air, for example, George Clooney’s character finds himself in the gender-reversed position of being unceremoniously left behind when a happy affair turns serious on only one side of the equation. And in It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep plays a late-middle-aged woman with surprising agency, suddenly faced with the choice to revive her relationship with the husband she divorced 10 years before or begin a romance with a soft-spoken architect who’s having difficulty getting over his own two-year-old divorce. But in both cases, films that at first appear progressive about gender reveal a disappointing conservatism that qualifies their viewing pleasures. I’ll save It’s Complicated for next time.

Ryan Bingham, Clooney’s debonair, proudly commitment-free corporate frequent-flyer in Up in the Air, travels the country visiting downsizing companies too timid to fire their own employees. With a prepared script tucked under his arm, Bingham delivers to the newly pink-slipped useless pabulum about turning their “career transformations” into opportunities to follow long-deferred dreams. He moves through strangers’ lives bringing huge consequences for them and none for him.

Bingham appears in each faceless corporate environment with the same stack of bunk generated by his own company—professionals at “career transitions”—breezing into and out of lives more profoundly and less happily changed than he’s willing to admit. Yet part of what makes Bingham (as Clooney conceives him) appealing is his faith in his lines; he couldn’t keep doing his job if he didn’t believe at least partially in what he says to those he fires.

Director Jason Reitman (Juno), in his carefully and somehow compassionately conceived scenes of Ryan’s summary execution of devastated employees, clarifies that very few of his “victims” can actually hear Ryan’s pep talk. Many of the poor folks in these scenes are apparently real unemployed people, hired (I hope) as extras for a day or two to re-enact with Clooney their experiences losing their own positions. J.K. Simmons (a Reitman regular late of Juno)—the only obvious actor in these sad vignettes—plays the only character who actually takes Bingham’s message to heart. You can see him thinking through Bingham’s suggestion that he’s now free to follow artistic dreams he set aside when he compromised his goals for corporate security. Though a light of relief and real gratitude goes on in the man's eyes, he’s the exception; most of the others exhibit only devastation and terror when Bingham delivers the news.

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is the catalyst for Bingham’s own unwitting transformation. As the new kid in their career transitions firm, she looks at the bottom line and suggests that the company is wasting money flying people like Bingham all over the country to do a job that could be accomplished much more cheaply via the internet. She suggests that the corporation’s firing squad be grounded. But Bingham’s boss, Craig (played as a cold-hearted capitalist by Jason Bateman, even more resigned and slimy here than he is in Juno), insists that she accompany Bingham on one of his trips, so that she’ll understand what Bingham sees as his job’s human factor. The thought of Keener’s company on the road horrifies Bingham, and she’s not much happier. Their odd-couple-esque road trip—through which, naturally, then come to respect and enjoy one another—provides the film’s narrative core.

In a breezy montage, Bingham shows Keener the ropes of expedient, efficient air travel. The camera captures close-ups of the in-line skate wheels on Bingham’s suitcase pivoting smoothly against the hard floors of look-alike airports, and records Bingham demonstrating how he can tell which security checkpoint lines will move fastest. For all her touted corporate time-saving savvy, Keener proves a loser at light travel. Bingham’s packing tutorial is the first step in rebalancing the power between them.

When he teaches her how to do his job, the stakes increase. Bingham is a well-oiled firing machine, whose years of experience have honed his ability to deliver the bad news quickly and what he can’t help but believe will be painlessly. While he adjusts his smile to exude warmth and sympathy as they meet soon-to-be former employees across a table, Keener can’t arrange her face and only looks nauseous and embarrassed. One of the women they fire tells them she’s going to jump off a bridge, which terrifies Keener. But Bingham reassures her that these are always idle threats, as though hearing people threaten suicide is an unavoidable and regular downside of his job.

On one of his last solo trips before Keener tags along, Bingham meets a woman executive—named only “Alex,” a masculinized nickname for a beautiful, sophisticated woman (played by the superb Vera Farmiga)—who matches his lust for travel and his comfort with the pleasures of the road. They fling their hotel and rental car loyalty cards on their bar table, matching and seeing one another like card players in a poker game. Bingham and Alex begin an affair, consulting their travel schedules to arrange future meetings. They’re well-matched physically and, it seems, emotionally; Farmiga and Clooney’s on-screen relationship is rich with good humor and chemistry.

In one of the film’s most effecting scenes, Keener’s boyfriend dumps her while she’s on the road with Bingham, so he and Alex help the young woman nurse her wounds in their hotel's bar. They dispense generous advice, but while Bingham casually boasts his antipathy for long-term commitments and kids, Alex waxes philosophical about what she wants in a man and her desire for children. This sly red herring leads you to anticipate a more conventional crisis between the leading couple, which makes the film’s surprise ending even more effective.

The bar room rap scene also demonstrates Bingham’s and Alex’s real humanity. They handle Keener gently without condescending to her, and she lets go of the uptight corporate hotshot role she’s been trying to play. The trio crash the hotel’s convention party by stealing attendee badges—Keener’s reads “Jennifer Lee,” and she’s not Asian American—and soaking up free drinks, food, and swag. The sweet and goofy party scene is also rather sad, because this evening of carousing at other people’s conferences obviously represents a good time for Bingham. Reitman does a lovely job modulating the film’s emotional tone, resisting the temptation to pity Bingham but clearly illustrating that his unencumbered life can be empty as well as liberating.

Bingham begins breaking his own rules as he becomes more and more attached to Alex. In his down time, Bingham supplements his career as a corporate ax-wielder by leading seminars that teach people how to lighten their emotional and material loads. He delivers a motivational speech that’s really a pat little talk about “what’s in your backpack,” which encourages his audience to unburden themselves not only of material possessions, but of entanglements with other people that keep them from enjoying their deserved freedom.

Thanks to Clooney’s innate, boyish charm, these speeches avoid their potentially smarmy masculine arrogance. In Clooney’s interpretation, Bingham preaches his credo not because he’s misanthropic, but because traveling light works for him and offers a convenient, rational, tidy belief system. All the guy wants is a good suitcase and enough frequent flyer miles to join the “10 Million Miles Club,” which entitles members to meet a pilot and fly anywhere in the world for free. Bingham’s only life goal is to accumulate more and more miles (an obvious metaphor for his flight from commitment). A heavy backpack would only hold him down.

Alex foils his plans. Bingham finds himself lonely without her, and notices, the few times he returns to his nearly empty, soulless condo in Omaha, his home base, that his life suddenly feels a bit too unencumbered. On a whim, he decides to attend his estranged sister’s wedding in Wisconsin, and invites Alex to come as his date. For some reason, she accepts, and they perform as a real couple in “real life” for the first time.

The family wedding scenes in Up in the Air offer a stark and sometimes calculated contrast to Bingham’s and Alex’s lives on the road. In the mid-West heartland, Bingham’s two sisters live simple lives with a lot less disposable income than their brother, whom they rarely see. The bride (Melanie Lynskey) and groom (Danny McBride) arrange the equivalent of a fire hall party after their church wedding, at which Alex and Ryan seem out of place, too sophisticated and worldly for the earthy northern Wisconsin surrounds (even though Ryan, after all, lives in Omaha; Alex, at least, is from Chicago).

When Ryan commits to attending the event, his sister asks him to collect photographs of a poster-board cut-out of the bride and groom situated against panoramic backgrounds in all the cities he visits. Ryan goes to some lengths collecting these pictures, assuming he’s doing his sister a unique favor. His self-importance deflates when he arrives at the fire hall, photos in hand, and is told to tack them on a large map of the U.S. that’s already covered with images. His family, it seems, doesn’t need him as much as Ryan imagines. A whole community supports them, decorating their party with pictures of the honeymoon they can't afford to take.

Which is part of Up in the Air’s point and its problem. The “flyover states” (that deprecating label from the political lexicon) appear mythologized once again as the place where people are simple and authentic, where family is cherished and relationships are built on loyalty and trust regardless of material means. Reitman films the wedding ceremony and party scenes with only a touch of comic condescension, since his goal is to portray Ryan’s new ambivalence when he compares his own choices to his family’s. Lost in the soft-focus filmmaking of these scenes is any critique of those family values as shopworn and exclusive. Up in the Air winds up promoting, like most movies, the conventional norm of white middle-class married heterosexuality as the benchmark of happiness.

Ryan usually prizes his individuality, boasting his rugged solitude. But when he sees his long-neglected family participating faithfully in the illusions of married fairy tales, instead of hightailing it back to the airport, he somehow realizes what he’s been missing. And that’s when the film gets conservative. Ryan starts choking on his “what’s in your backpack” speech, and shortly after his weekend with Alex at the wedding, decides to take his own plunge.

On a whim, Bingham changes his flight plan and arrives breathlessly at Alex’s Chicago brownstone, wearing Clooney’s trademark seductive grin and his aw-shucks stance. But when Alex throws open the door, he sees behind her children running up and down the stairs, and hears a male voice asking his “honey” who’s at the door. Answering that it’s “just someone who’s lost,” Alex’s face freezes in horror as she shakes her head at Bingham, wordlessly beseeching him to leave. Clooney registers in an instance how badly he’s misinterpreted Alex’s affections. He’s come to deliver himself like a prize, when instead, Alex chose something from behind another door a long time ago.

When she calls Bingham on her cell phone from a car in an empty parking garage, Alex demands that he explain his surprise appearance. In a hurt, wondering tone more familiar coming from jilted women, Bingham asks Alex what he means to her, and she responds, “A parenthesis.” Bingham has simply been an interruption in her life’s sentence, an afterthought, an addition that doesn’t really change its direction or flow.

Bingham swallows his devastation and goes on to achieve his former goal, suddenly finding a pilot sliding into the seat next to him on the plane to welcome him to the “10 Million Mile Club.” The hollow moment isn’t even bittersweet for Bingham; he’s mortified that this has been his aspiration, that he focused his energies on this empty meeting between himself and a man who’s just a corporate suit commanding a flying machine, to whom Bingham really has nothing to say. He has enough miles to go anywhere, and finds there’s really no where he wants to go. He books his sister and her new husband on a round-the-world trip, and just keeps packing his own “Travel Pro” to go off to his job letting people go.

The once heartless young Keener gets her own wake-up call when the woman they fired really does jump off a bridge. Keener leaves to find redemption in San Francisco at a new, more socially responsible firm. For Bingham, the ex-employee’s suicide is only a pin-prick in his rock-solid belief his profession is just. He’s left with his suitcase and a world that’s his oyster, one for which he’s entirely lost his appetite.

While Up in the Air begins as a refreshingly anti-marriage story of a man who nonetheless has a great deal of compassion for other people, it ends as a morality tale about the lonely individual who’s failed to commit to the community. Even in a movie as smart as this, in which the characters talk in full sentences and seem to have real ideas and feelings, living outside of married domesticity just can’t be imagined or sustained. The film's only progressive note is the gender-reversal that leaves Bingham alone at the end, while Alex has gotten just what she wanted—a friendly diversion from a real life that suits her just fine.

Thankfully, Up in the Air doesn’t moralize about Alex’s infidelity. The film makes Bingham appear foolish for investing in the happily ever after fairy tale against all his best wry instincts. The excellent cast helps make these characters compelling and complex. Clooney is terrific as the cavalier but emotionally acute Bingham, and Farmiga plays Alex with a great deal of controlled, cautious warmth behind her gorgeous, capable demeanor. Anna Kendrick, as Keener, brings a light comic touch as well as real depth to a character that seems at first just a heartless corporate cog. Her own awakening to what she will and won’t compromise for professional success nicely balances Bingham’s and Alex’s choices, and Kendrick plays the character’s emotional shifts beautifully.

For all its disappointing conservatism, Up in the Air is a grown-up, intelligent movie, especially compared to the puerile, adolescent situations concocted in Nancy Meyer’s fluff film, It’s Complicated. Up in the Air manages to be thoughtful and compassionate, rueful about choices made by a man who’s fully middle-aged and realizes he might have placed his faith in exactly the wrong things.

I only wish he knew he had more options.

The Feminist Spectator