In one sense, Ryan Bingham is living the golden life. Soaring over the heartland, dipping in and out of fly-over country and hotter tourist spots, indulging in commitment-free trysts with women on the same ever-turning page as he: who could ask for anything more? True, the actual job which pays for this - firing strangers whose bosses are too cowardly to give the boot themselves - is not ideal. And the lifestyle doesn't allow much room for comfort or stability. But a guy like Bingham, who bears a remarkable resemblance to George Clooney, can coast by on his looks and his charm: he tells "clients" that they're Abraham Lincolns and Harry Trumans in the making, that they have to fail badly in order to succeed, and then he quietly hands them their packet and pushes them out the door (and away from the nearest window) while they mull this over. As for the security, the places to warm your feet by the fire at day's end, Bingham professes no interest - indeed, he's built an entire second career as a motivational speaker who advises stressed-out audiences to unload their metaphorical backpack and hit the skyways, real or otherwise.
Yes, it's the logical conclusion of the American Dream: to consume, to move restlessly onward, to live with style all while your feet barely touch the ground. Bingham suggests as much in the film's conclusion, over images of puffy, dusky clouds, his voiceover backed by the muffled sound of an airplane's engine roar, his ambivalent tone not quite mitigating the allure...
"Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and screaming kids. Their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wing-tip passing over."
Riding along with him on that wing-tip, for the moment anyway, is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She's an up-and-comer at Bingham's company, full of ideas about streamlining and digitizing the whole process. The film does not convince us that Natalie's colossally insensitive approach would ever actually be considered, nor that the layoffs themselves would take so calmly to their dismissal. (Don't get me wrong: they protest, they weep, some even lash out violently, but never to the extent that a good deal of writerly dialogue can't unfold in that bleak little room.) Nonetheless, the device of pairing Natalie and Bingham humanizes a movie which began life as a snazzy if very cold fish. Also thrown into the mix is Bingham's fellow traveller Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga); both agree that their "relationship," resumed and abandoned whenever their flight paths cross, will mean absolutely, positively, thankfully, nothing. ("Just think of me as you, but with a vagina," Goran suggests helpfully to a hesitant Bingham). We fully expect this to change, and it does, but in a fashion that is both surprising and dramatically satisfying though the logic may be a bit a slippery. Still, for the bulk of the movie, Bingham remains remarkably consistent in his attachment to this ephemeral journey with no destination, that perpetual motion which gives him the illusion of forward momentum.
Of course, Up in the Air is a Hollywood film, and not even a Hollywood-film-in-indie-drag as was director Jason Reitman's previous Juno. So it goes without saying that the movie must both flirt with Bingham's carefree lifestyle and ultimately bring him back to earth with a confirmation of domesticity's virtues. After all, the American Dream contains both wanderlust and the hope of settling down, and these two competing ideals must always be allowed for in works which appeal to our commonly-held yearnings. The movie accomplishes this with more subtlety than might be expected; furthermore, as the closing statement suggests, the character's edge is never completely shaved off. More problematic than this belated peon to home and hearth is Up in the Air's criticism of Bingham's glib grab-and-go consumer ethic. Reitman is an extremely mannered, slick director; paired with the always stylish Clooney the film's form is so sharp one begins to gag. The opening montage, slicing and dicing aerial views of America in rhythm to the music (a jaunty, poppy cover of "This Land is Your Land") is both tantalizing and frustrating. One doesn't know whether to resent the film for codifying and commodifying the rich American landscape, or to applaud it for so fully conveying and implicitly condemning its protagonist's superficial view of the land of promise he traverses.
Ultimately, suiting both title and character, Up in the Air is trapped between two attitudes - satirizing and embodying a shiny, flat, empty Americana. In this it resembles Steven Soderbergh's low-budget quickie The Girlfriend Experience, which used another metaphor - the high-price call girl - to expose glib, sleek consumerism on the cusp of global meltdown. Soderbergh's film went further both in embodying and subverting this mindset - as such it was at once more successful and less enjoyable than Up in the Air. There was no way out in Soderbergh's rather rancid social and aesthetic view, but while Up in the Air points to an exit, the options outside that door are not very encouraging. The film exists in a post-2008 world where layoffs and economic insecurity have become the new norm: Clooney is like a last holdout from the Clinton/Bush years trying to live a life of irresponsibility without consequences. What is not clear at film's end is to what extent his openness about this approach, and the eventual vulnerability this entails, is actually a more honest version of the way everyone else is living. This ambiguity is to the movie's credit.
Whether intentional or inevitably resultant from the film's dual commitments to social statement and entertainment industry ethos (I suspect it's a bit of both), this dodginess ultimately lends Up in the Air a complexity which it might otherwise lack. The warmth and strength of the performances (though Kendrick couldn't convincingly cry if her grandmother was run over by a tractor) also humanize the film. Good actors save Up in the Air from the glib pyrotechnics of its advertising techniques and the confused enclosement of the screenplay's world (in which a hotel tech-fest is made to stand for personal liberation, without the requisite irony). Aside from the stars, "real people" - non-actors from the working (or now non-working) world - are interviewed throughout the film. The device makes an uneven fit with the rest of Up in the Air: ultimately, this is not a film about American reality but about American dreams, and the way they brush up against reality, a reality which remains resolutely offscreen. In the end, that nervous glint in Bingham's eye exists not because he's afraid reality might come pouring in to his airless life, with all its requisite pain and discomfort. His greatest fear is that he'll continue to float above it all, up in the air where neither suffering nor real joy can reach him.