Ryan Bingham is a “transition specialist,” a fancy corporate chess piece brought in to companies to fire employees when the boss cannot muster the decency to do it himself. He lives a life always on the move from airport to airport, surrounded by people, but unable to form a relationship with any of them. Bingham has lived the majority of his life with this lifestyle and has been content with it until two women come along and shake up his routine. One is the female version of himself and the other is his nightmare, a young woman essentially trying to eliminate his job. The first, Alex, gives Bingham a taste of what it means to see the same person more than once. The second, Natalie, exposes how callous he has become and perhaps there are things to be gained from softening up. Both open up the proverbial Pandora’s box.
Bingham was ignorantly bliss before these women came along and given the events of the third act, can you really say Bingham is a better person after meeting these two? Films do not always need a happy ending, but a dismal ending should be justified whether it is portraying harsh reality (as in Precious) or delivering a message (as in Atonement). Up In The Air is firmly a message piece since Bingham’s occupation is rather esoteric and not an accurate portrayal of reality. Indeed, the film is full of “messages,” but whether they are true or need to be told remains up for debate. Bingham does open himself up to pursue a relationship with Alex, but suffers quite severely from it. By the end, his life has come full circle: he continues to live airport to airport and remains single. The only difference is that at the end, he is unhappy with this situation. Surely, the pursuit of love requires vulnerability and the chance to get burned, but even then, the rejected comes out the other side with some amount of personal growth. In Bingham’s case, it is not clear that he has grown or learned something about life. In fact, the last scene shows a man that has grown weary of the game and has had the life force sucked out of him. He is not stronger and we have no idea if he will attempt to find another partner or if he will go back to a life of isolation. The tagline on the movie poster, claims that he is ready to make a connection, but it is unclear if he feels the same way by the end of the movie. On a larger scale, the audience is left to wonder if the suave, charming, fast-talking Bingham (played by an equally suave and charming George Clooney) cannot find love, then are the rest of us mortals doomed?
The other half of the plot in this film – the art of firing people – was more than just a plot device. Unlike the main plotline, the interludes of celebrity firings actually strengthened the film’s thesis that even under the most desperate circumstances, human interaction is craved. Whereas Bingham never required human connection for happiness, the people he fires do. They have families to support and children for whom to be role models and in a moment of personal tragedy, they need a real person to deliver the news rather than an email, a text or a virtual person 1,000 miles away. In his moment of personal tragedy, Bingham could have also used a human connection, but ironically, he could have avoided this tragedy if he had not put himself out at the mercy of another human.
Despite my dislike of the plot message, every other facet of this film was crafted with fine detail. The performances by Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick were stellar. The dialogue was sharp and unforced. The directorial style was not flashy, just solid. I can see how some people are eager to throw end-of-the-year accolades at this film, but 2009 has produced stronger films with more creativity (Inglourious Basterds), more emotion (Up), and more hope (District 9).