Up in the Air
There is a film in theaters now, which I haven’t seen yet, The Messenger, that shows a worse job than the one shown here. In that film two soldiers have the duty of going to the homes of men and women killed in action and informing the families that their loved one is dead. In other words, they get to do that scene from Saving Private Ryan that damn near destroyed me, where the soldiers drive up to the isolated farmhouse with the four blue stars in the window. The mother doesn’t need to be told; her knees give out the moment she sees the government car. These guys get to do that day after day. I’d be dead in ten minutes at that job. In this film George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who has a job that isn’t as bad as that, but it has to be a strong second place. He hops all over the country, firing people who their employers are too chickenshit to fire themselves, face to face. He has it down to a science. The writer had enough smarts to make these tragic scenes, the firings, full of wry humor, and the scenes of his life even more amusing. Basically, he is emotionally disconnected from the entire world … and he doesn’t mind (or at least he tells himself so, and even convinces us for a long time). He likes flying first class, staying in good hotels, picking up women as unattached as he is. Or at least he tells himself he does. He has systematized his life as thoroughly as he has the process of breaking it to some poor schlub that, despite 10, 15, 20 (fill in any number) years of faithful work, the company doesn’t need your used-up ass anymore, here’s two month’s pay and there’s the door, please clean out your desk in fifteen minutes. Last year Ryan spent something like 34 days at “home,” in Omaha, and hated every one of them. When he finally does go home, I didn’t even realize it for a while, as his one-bedroom apartment looks pretty much like the dozen hotel suites we’ve already seen, sterile as an operating room, without a single hint that a human being has ever set foot in the place.
So along comes a hot-shot college graduate (Anna Kendrick, in a wonderful performance that got her an Oscar nomination) with a new computer program that will allow Ryan and others in the company to fire people over the Internet, without ever leaving the office. It works great on paper, and in a staged demonstration. Ryan is outraged, and takes her on the road, where she learns that face-to-face is a lot different than a 16-inch computer screen. This is one of the worst moments of these people’s lives. They cry, they get furious, they threaten suicide. And the great thing about the movie is that George is shown to be compassionate, if not emotionally involved. He’s done this a thousand times, he knows how to soften the blow, he even is able to suggest ways these people might get through it, and possibly even better themselves. After all, most people who work in offices, I believe, didn’t grow up wishing to be a paper shuffler or number cruncher or a sales person. Everyone had a dream. Getting kicked out might be your last chance to realize it. Naturally, things happen to break through Ryan’s emotional barriers, and none of them were what I expected. One of them is his on-the-road girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, with another well-earned Oscar nomination) who he thinks is just like him—she tells him “Think of me as you with a vagina”) and turns out to be something else entirely. A really top-notch movie, so good I think I will read the book it was based on.