‘I’m like my grandmother, I stereotype. It’s faster’, says Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in an Up in the Air line so cynically clever I half assumed that I was going loath myself for enjoying his company. But Jason Reitman recession-minded satire makes so sense perfectly within its own universe that it actually comes out as a really funny and provocative take on how the American dream is doing during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Counter to what I had picked up from the perceived backlash against it, it was not its slickness (which I think was a necessary component of its mostly succinct satire), but its length that managed to irk me somewhat.
In yesterday’s New York Times, I read a quote from a banker about all the shoddy practices that sector had indulged in over the last many years, contributing to the crisis still rippling through most of the world, saying: “It’s capitalism, I guess, but it’s not to be applauded.” That’s the point with Ryan Bingham, too. He’s a professional in criss-crossing America, firing people on behalf of corporate cowards who don’t have the guts to do it themselves. Ryan believes so strongly in the American dream that he seriously seems to believe his own word when he tries to convince workers afraid they’ll default on their mortgage or lose their house that getting laid off is exactly the chance that they have secretly been waiting for. He reads up on their hobbies and passions, and gently asks them if this may not be precisely the time to follow that long-abandoned dream. And even though we understand it’s satire, Clooney makes him so charming and convincing that we end up accepting his counterintuitively cheerful message.
As it turns out, however, not even Ryan Bingham, that preacher of the ever-changing labor market and the seductive metaphor about the empty backpack, is immune to the relentless drive for more effective business models and larger profit margins, the exact same forces that drive the firings he carries out without ever having to give a formal reason. Capitalist reason visits his company in the form of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who has designed an organisational model in which the face-to-face firings that once made Ryan the king of frequent-flyer bonuses can now be made via a camera over the internet. Realizing that Anna’s model, democratizing who can do the firings, but taking Ryan’s carefully honed craftsmanship out of the equation, might mean the end of the outsurced firing-squad as he knows it, Ryan firmly resists joining the ‘ground forces’. Instead, he convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) that he should take Natalie on a tour to learn the trade, in the hope that she’ll learn something that may make her system even better.
I suppose I should think of it as slick and manipulative, but within the somewhat detached context of Ryan himself being in the position of someday losing a job that helps him take his mind off the loneliness in his life, I was actually interested in Ryan tutoring Natalie as more than a satirical set-up. However cynical it may seem, he truly thinks that although his job is essentially a way for corporations to offload the dirty work, there’s a right and dignified way to do it. You may just be rattling off lots of soothing corporate newspeak, but at least you do it in a way that forces you to seem responsible to the person you’re firing, in a way that something from the other side of the globe can never seem. Normally I have problems with movies in which George Clooney takes advantage of his natural slickness, but it’s a testament to this movie’s universe that I somehow accepted Ryan Bingham’s understanding of what counts as honesty.
Up in the Air works as a satire because it has a keen eye for the absurdities of capitalism – how Ryan’s boss hails the economic crisis as a boom-time for his business – and for how people need to justify working within the framework of even the cruelest of branches. With accountability and responsibility outsorced, Ryan’s line of work starts to remind of how the Pentagon outsorced the war in Iraq to companies like Blackwater, which made it easier for political to wash their hands of any wrongdoing. Ryan Bingham is not the bad-guy, he’s just a symptom of the shortcomings of a system in which people can make money by ducking responsibility for decisions that impact other people’s lives negatively.
Sadly, the movie loses some height after a razor-sharp and funny first hour that simultaneously managed to get some interesting reflections going. After Natalie disappears from the story, attention turns from trying to under Ryan Bingham to trying to save him from himself. There were some good scenes in this part too, particularly with Clooney and Ryan’s apparent soulmate, Alex (Vera Farmiga), but the sudden rush of sentimentalism that surrounds Ryan’s sister’s wedding in Wisconsin, didn’t seem to fit terribly well with the Ryan we had gotten to know until then. He is not interesting because of his family; in fact I would argue that some of his most interesting and quirky traits come from the fact that he insists on keeping his family at bay. He fascinated me as a the grease in a corporate machinery, but not necessarily as a son with a strained relationship with his family.
Had Jason Reitman used his considerable talent for corporate satire to give the movie a little sharper focus, Up in the Air could’ve been a great. Now, I guess we’ll have to settle for a good one.