A great deal of critical space has been used describing how Up in the Air, a Jason Reitman-directed movie, is a parable for our times of tragic economic conditions and big-scale cutbacks by corporations. George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a corporate "transition specialist" which is a euphemism that means he is hired by companies to come in and fire people when the companies themselves are too scared to do it. Of course, business is booming, and Bingham actually offers some humanity in the face of a horrible task. The film never focuses on the rightness or wrongness of the task itself, but in how it is performed. The film also focuses on Bingham himself, not only in how he performs this task with grace and even compassion (even though he seems to speak with the corporate line), but in how he survives—even thrives—in the setting he finds himself in: travelling 322 days a year. Discussions of Up in the Air that focus on this aspect of the movie are missing the forest for the trees. Up in the Air doesn't really make a commentary about the tragedy of job loss, but uses it as a metaphor to describe the stories people tell themselves to get by with their daily lives.
Clooney's Bingham tells himself he doesn't need a home, or the people associated with a static location. He is very good at everything he does—the scenes of his travel preparations are edited to mimic military precision of squads in formation—and his interactions with the people he has been hired to fire are graceful and delicate, even if just underneath them there is a tension because he is paid to say the compassionate thing rather than he feels the need to. He is a consummate traveler and the best at his job, and because of this expertise, he has told himself he doesn't need ties that bind. But he meets the lovely and equally gifted Alex Goran (played by Vera Farmiga) in a hotel bar and discovers what appears to be a similar soul. They connect and then they bond over their similarities (and because they are two outrageously attractive people who are alone). Their tentative exploration of the possibility of a relationship is charming for its apparent innocence handled by two very world-weary adults.
Another bond is forced on Ryan when fresh up-and-comer Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is dropped on him by his company. Natalie has come up with the idea of outsourcing firing so that it can be performed via the internet using webcams and microphones. Of course, the company loves this idea since it will save them scads of money. Ryan's objections are not what one might expect—that it's inhumane; instead he argues that on the one hand not having the interaction personally cannot account for the actions the other person might take and on the other, that Natalie has no experience firing people and so should have to do it for a while before trying to change the process. His company agrees and teams Keener with Bingham as they travel about the country, letting her learn the ropes so she can revise her initial plans. And it's true, Natalie is just out of college and very bright, but she has no real-world experience, which is reflected in the story that Natalie has told herself about her life: she'll be married in her early 20s to a man for whom she has exacting specifications and lead the fulfilling life of working mom, with adoring children awaiting her return each workday and a doting husband. Attempting to fulfill this vision of herself lands her in Omaha, rather than in San Francisco at her dream job, but it is a sacrifice she feels she has to make. Ryan recognizes the self-delusion in Natalie's story, and the slow revelation to Natalie herself is played lightly and with comedy.
At the same time, however, Natalie tries to show Ryan the self-delusion in his own self-story, trying to impress upon him that loneliness is poor life choice. And grudgingly, Ryan begins to see the wisdom of her arguments: clearly something is growing between he and Alex, something he likes, and perhaps he should have better goals than to become only the seventh person to achieve American Airlines's ten million mile frequent flyer club. And so Ryan and Alex goes to the wedding of his estranged sister in Wisconsin, where he proves to himself (and to his astonished family) that he is still capable of having and perhaps deserving a home. But Ryan and Natalie never consider that Alex might have her own story about herself, and that story is revealed with haunting repercussions.
Up in the Air begins and ends with interviews supposedly with people that have just been fired. Their responses are tough to endure and lead to the conclusions I mention above, that this is a movie about job loss. But these people too are having their stories unraveled before them—their responses indicate how they are being forced to change their world-views and views of themselves as a result of what has happened to them. And what makes Ryan so good at his job is how he helps them with this paradigm shift; his interview with the great character actor J.K. Simmons demonstrates the kinds of questions and self-understanding that changing self-stories require, again with a frisson of bile since Ryan is being paid to say these things and only reveals a tiny smattering of concern about these people outside of the room where he so deftly changes their lives.
Up in the Air does not come to a definitive conclusion—there are no tidy endings in life. What we do get to see is people closing chapters of their life and revising their self-stories. Whether they are better or worse off at their stories' conclusion is unknowable: it depends on what they do with the new direction they have been given and how the viewer feels about the original stories the characters arrive with. If there is a message in the movie, it's that life goes on—people take life's worst blows and deal with them (with one excruciating exception), continuing their stories with new possibility and direction. This is a subtle film: there are no sustained guffaws or operatic tragedies. It's just the life of people you might pass by every day and never know the twists and turns their life has given to them. And in this subtlety, in this honest witness into people's lives, it does not judge the characters, though it makes it exceedingly easy for its audience to do so. But it challenges the viewer to not make that judgment but to just experience, for a few moments, those lives. The result is a powerfully effective movie, one that reminds me of Lost in Translation for its understated emotional impact, as we learn to care for slightly odd characters doing the things that make them who they are, as we learn the stories they represent to the world.