Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Up in the Air": George Clooney shows that compulsive traveling substitutes for "real life" (like it's fun to fire people)


On a Thursday morning in December 2001, I was working with an internal customer on a technical problem, when my computer screen at work flashed at exactly 9 AM, “Your account has been disabled. Please log off. “

At 9:10, my manager stood in my cubicle and said, “Bill, we have a meeting at 9:30.” Fortunately, I had already calculated by severance, retirement, and other benefits, and in the meeting I found I had predicted them to the penny. The only requirement was to sign a “release of all claims” – an agreement not to sue. Another coworker, aware of my provocative book and website (by 2001 standards) said, “Bill, now you can go after the $25 million prize for helping entrap Osama bin Laden.”

Back around 1985 or so, PBS ran a series on outplacement companies, showing how a “hatchet man” calls an executive at work the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, asks him to meet with his boss, and together they tell the executive that he no longer has a job. Oh yes, he has a year’s severance. And, guess what, it’s musical chairs: his next job offer turns out to be as a replacement for still another executive.

So, in the widely praised Paramount Christmas film "Up in the Air", George Clooney (as Ryan Bingham) seems like a nice guy, involved in progressive causes like global warming, but his assertiveness is supposed to equip him to be the guy who tells sacked employees they’re to clear out, and deliver their severance and COBRA packages. In my case, the outplacement company did only that (outplacement advice) but in other situations the outplacement company helps break the news. He is a professional, compulsive traveler, on the road 300 days a year. He packs light, and tells people at motivational seminars how to pack their own backpacks light (I went to something like this on a whim in Helena, Montana in 1981 after hearing it advertised over the radio in my rental car – a “feeling good about yourself” seminar). It’s a good way to avoid “real life” – relationships. He has a sort of relationship with a woman (Vera Farmiga) his own age, eventually to be told that he is an “escape”, a “parenthesis”; her family is her real life. (Jennifer Roback Morse and Maggie Gallagher would love this “pro marriage” aspect of the movie.) He counsels his niece’s fiancĂ©e to go through a wedding that he will never experience (as if he were a priest, not quite). But then his boss brings in Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who will stop all the travel by putting the “termination specialist” (not “terminator”) on Skype for the employee to interact with. So Ryan takes her on the road to prove that the travel is needed.

A lot of the movie takes place in airports (like “Terminal”) and the TSA screeners look regimented with their starchy uniforms. It looks like a hard job to be a screener. One of the "saddest" scenes comes when Ryan passes his half million frequent flier mile award and gets a party from the pilot in flight.

The film shows aerial shots of many cities (Miami, Dallas, Wichita, Chicago, Las Vegas, Des Moines, St. Louis, Tulsa, even San Francisco). These shots would have benefitted from a 2.35:1 aspect ratio; but the closeup and airport scenes do well in the conventional 1.85:1 shots, as directed by Jason Reitman (for the Paramount Mountain and Montecito Pictures).

The official site for the movie is here.

The film is nominated for "Best Dramatic Picture" in the Golden Globes and is nominated for the most Golden Globe awards.

The YouTube trailer comes from "Regal Movie Trailers" (URL).



The film has a nice little disco party scene with real 80's music!

The film also reminded me of Robert Benton's "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979, Columbia), that has a "firing" scene (at lunch, no less, followed by a desparate hiring scene, just before Christmas).

And, by the way, the first movie that I would see after I was sacked in 2001, two days out, was Patrick Fettner's "The Business of Strangers" (IFC), which also bears some thematic similarity to today's review film. Bring on Suze Orman!

Picture: Lego exhibit of Dulles Airport at Tysons Corner lego fair, 207 (mine)

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