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Up in the Air


George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air” is a peculiar man. He fires people for a living; he’s a third party hired gun, who does the dirty work when a corporation is downsizing.  He is impeccably professional, polite and proper;  a shrink should probably examine him for OCD tendencies or British ancestry. Unlike most human beings he loves to travel, because, unlike most human beings, he never has to wait; he’s a member of every Elite or Plus or Maverick club at every hotel, rental agency, or airport he visits.  He’s a bachelor’s bachelor; he gives motivational lectures about being noncommital and not tied down in any conceivable way.  He is, to all appearances, an utterly unattached human being.

But when his boss brings in a fresh-faced upstart(Anna Kendrick) to revolutionize the business of firing people, Clooney resists. They’re going to use computers and video conferencing to pink slip people, instead of doing the dirty work face to face?  It’ll never work, Clooney protests. People need that human connection.  They need someone in the room with them, face to face, helping them face the worst day of their lives. This from the guy who is happiest 30,000 feet above the swarming mass of humanity that lives on this planet.

And then we begin to see the wrinkles beneath the perfectly pressed suit. Clooney doesn’t just fire people; he’s good at firing them. He’s able to look at a resume and gather that a 20 year veteran in the software industry gave up his dreams of being a chef, and reignite that dream.  He never makes a false move.  He always knows when to smile, when to look away, when to raise his voice, go deep, look into their eyes, and when to get up and leave.    He never seems cold or impersonal; he never seems overly warm or familiar.  This is a man who is incredibly, uncannily good with people.  He could be a politician.

So why is he so unattached?  Why does he spend 300 days a year traveling?   Why does he prefer airplane and motel hostesses who know his name over sisters and significant others, who know him? He’s not antisocial;  he’s not even socially awkward; he seems perfectly capable of real human relationships; repoire, comradery. (This is Clooney we’re talking about, after all, not Sean Penn.)  One could theorize that he’s running from something, some insecurity, failure, or something deeper and darker.   But I think it’s just because he doesn’t like the mess. People are inevitably messy, if you spend enough time with them. In three hour chunks, though, they’re pretty sanitary.

Clooney’s antiseptic world falls apart, as any falsely constructed utopia is bound to.   The video conferencing idea flies; he doesn’t.    He is forced to stay home and try to build a real relationship with his sister, as well as deal with his growing feelings for his lover, played by Vera Farmiga.   Naturally, things get messy.   Let me restate that.   Things get messy, which is natural.  And healthy.   Like granola.  His healthy demise is set against his road partner/foil Kendrick’s;  she gets dumped by her fiancee via text message (a very sanitary way to break up.)   She had a perfect plan as well, and in fact, is working at Clooney’s firm in Omaha because she followed a boy there.  (Tip:  never follow a boy to Nebraska.   Always a bad idea.)  As Clooney and Farmiga listen to her bemoan the destruction of her Perfect Little Plan — married at 24, kids at 26 & 28,  be a devoted mother while maintaining a successful career,  etc. — they smirk and reflect on how standards and ideals change as you grow older.  But how different are they, really?

A lot of people are saying “Up in the Air” is a movie for our times because it taps into our fears about unemployment, the economy, etc.  But I think it’s timely because it assesses and represents just how acceptable single-serving relationships have become within our society.  Like Clooney, most of us want things neat and tidy.   We don’t stick around with people long enough for things to get messy;  or if we do stick around, it’s within sharply defined boundaries to keep the mess contained and off our neatly pressed suits.  Professionalism used to belong to the professionals;  now, most of our intimate relationships are more professional than our grandparents’ dealings with the local grocer.    Like Clooney, we are overly mobile;  like Clooney, we hide behind manners and politeness so that we don’t have to deal with people’s meltdowns.  We are trying to live up in the air because we don’t like the mud, when mud is where we came from, and to where we’ll return.

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3 Responses

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  1. brilliant!

  2. Willie's wife said

    very well written. Love the part about British ancestry. I had no idea this movie was so good. Nominated for best picture! Not that it wasn’t good, just that I don’t usually like the good stuff.

  3. Read the novel it’s based on. Very different, yet many of the same elements as the film, just used in different ways. The white-haired man with a permanent scowl on his face who always seems to sit next to Clooney at company meetings is the novel’s author, Walter Kirn.

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