Friday, February 19, 2010

Up in the Air -- what matters in life

Director: Jason Reitman, 2009. (R)

Euphemisms. You gotta love 'em. They help us deal with the dirty and unseemly aspects of life. Many relate to death and grieving. We describe Christian loved ones as "asleep with Jesus." Others have "bought the farm" or "kicked the bucket." No longer are their civilian casualties of war; they are "collateral damage," which is much easier to live with. In Up in the Air, the main characters work for the Omaha based "Career Transition Counseling" Company. This is not a company that offers counseling; it is an outsourced firing firm. For those not man enough to lay off their employees themselves face-to-face, they can hire Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who will fly in just for the occasion and do this dirty work for them.

Up in the Air is certainly timely. With the recession of 2009 fresh in our minds, many of us know a friend who lost her job. Or perhaps it's our own job that was hit, disappearing like mist up in the air, leaving us stunned and speechless. And that is exactly the reaction of those we see fired in this film. Indeed, most of these people really did lose their jobs recently, and were hired by the filmmakers to recreate their actual responses to that news.

But what makes this a contemporary comic drama is what will date it in less than a decade. Despite its searing sharpness and apropos social commentary, something we would expect from the director of Juno, this does not feel like the Best Picture of 2009, an honor for which it has been nominated by the Academy. (Working with his father Ivan Reitman, this is only the second movie produced by a father-son team to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, the other being Il Postino in 1994.)

Bingham is a corporate downsizing expert -- there's another euphemism. He fires people for a living. And it is a living he enjoys. He has all the right credit cards, frequent traveller miles, knows his way around most airports, maxes out his expenses, and is generally treated like royalty by the airlines. But he has no real home. His condo looks like a hotel suite with less decor. It is just a stop off between trips. And he has no meaningful relationships.

Indeed, Up in the Air is all about relationships and lifestyle choices. Bingham is up front about his philosophy of life. He moonlights as a motivational speaker, a sort of scaled down Tony Robbins for those struggling with relationships and life. Focusing on "What's in your backpack," he declares his views:
Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.
What a philosophy to live by! Sharks are predators, always moving, never settling. That is not the picture of human life we see in the Bible. There man is made male and female by a loving creator (Gen. 1:26), who wants there to be relational bonds between men and women in marriage (Gen. 2:24). Moreover, there are the additional relationships between siblings and friends. Life is richer and more meaningful because of them. Apart from such ties we become isolated and lonely, looking out for only our own personal goals, not bothering about other people.

Perhaps this is why Bingham is so good at his job: he doesn't care about anyone but himself. He can deal out words of career improvement even as he fires someone, because he will never see them again and doesn't want to.

The tagline declares this to be the story of a man ready to make a connection. That is not just the connection to the next airport. He meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), another high-mileage traveller, in an airport bar (where else?). Suddenly it is like looking in the mirror. But as their "relationship" develops, it is nothing more than an extended one-night stand.

When Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman, Juno) takes the advice of the new kid on the block, the movie gets interesting. Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a young and cocky, know-it-all over-achiever who has visions of greatness. Her idea is to conduct these "counseling" sessions via video over the internet. After all, why do you need to be there in person. Suddenly, Bingham's job is threatened. He is the dinosaur facing extinction, and with it his comfortable life. Ironically he is the one who must show her the ropes by taking her on the road so she can understand how it is done.

This trio of Natalie, Alex and Bingham interact several times in airports and hotels. They play off each well and the acting is on the money. Clooney, especially, comes across perfectly as a man who thinks he has what he wants, but begins to sense something more, something lacking. Two scenes summarize the emptiness of his life. In the first, Natalie comments on Bingham's avoidance of the growing relationship with Alex, telling him, "You live in a cocoon of self-banishment." It is so true. It is his personal choice to cocoon himself away from others. He is not willing to engage or open himself up to others in anything except superficial and sexual ways. He is protected, he is a rock.

The second scene comes in a hotel restaurant. With three plates of food in front of him, naive Natalie wonders what is going on. Bingham: "I don't spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my mileage account." Natalie: So, what are you saving up for? Hawaii? South of France?" Bingham responds, "It's not like that. The miles are the goal." This is a peek into his heart. "That's it? You're saving just to save?" And Bingham answers, "Let's just say that I have a number in mind and I haven't hit it yet."

Bingham's life goal is to hit a magic number. What an ambition! Such an empty goal. Not interested in people, he wants a pin, a medal of sorts. Is that what life is all about? Not at all! Bingham's vacuous approach to life is seen for what it is here. Apart from people, things become paramount. But things are just trinkets that gather dust and eventually break down. Even when he achieves his goal it is unsatisfying. Goals are like that. God has set it in our hearts to desire meaning and purpose (Ecc. 3"11). And we find it as we trust him and enter his kingdom (Mk. 1:15). He is at work growing his kingdom, bringing mercy and love, peace and compassion to those who come to Jesus. We can be part of this work if we choose. Then our mission expands beyond the tiny walls of our own soul. Our focus turns to others, aand to God. And missional work requires relational beings. We can no longer be content to be cocooned. We must refuse to be sharks, and become lambs, like the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29).

At the heart of the film is the theme of loyalty. In almost every airport we see a poster with the word loyalty. But this refers to loyalty to the airline. Bingham demonstrates loyalty, but to himself and his airline not to people. There is no familial loyalty. He barely knows his two siblings. He is not loyal to his "girlfriends," although Alex forces him to question this. No, he has no loyalty to anything meaningful.

Loyalty is an excised and extinct word in corporate America. Companies built on loyalty have become transformed into sharks that no longer care for their employees. Corporate loyalty is a thing of the past. Yet, loyalty is a virtuous character quality when applied correctly. Where Bingham failed, we can succeed if we remain loyal to our spouses, our relatives and our friends, not necessarily our employers. As Christians our calling is to remain faithful, to be loyal. By being different from the world, we can stand out and declare a message, the good news of the Kingdom of God. And that God remains loyal to us: "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5).

As Up in the Air ends, Bingham stands in an airport and faces a choice. But has he grown? Has he changed? Lifestyle changes are sometimes very hard to make. The biggest one we can ever make is to choose Jesus.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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