We went to see this last week. A virtual one-man show by George Clooney is supplemented by an outstanding performance by Anna Kendrick as his 23 year old nemesis. There is not so much a plot as a detached observation on the bleakness of early 21st century American capitalism.
Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a hired terminator, travelling 350,000 miles a year telling people their services are no longer required. He adores his job and the perks of first class air travel, lives for reaching the goal of 10 million air miles, promotes his theory that we are all ‘sharks’ – loners, survivialists – and are best served by keeping our ‘backpacks’ uncluttered with all the heavy burdens that slow us down – especially relationships, the heaviest of all the burdens we carry. His sexual relationships are casual, knowing and mutually exploitative transactions.
His perfect world begins to crumble with the arrival of Kendrick, at first apparently even more ruthless than Clooney, whose big idea is to replace the road warrior terminators and save money by doing all the firing by video link. And so the heart of the film is how these two characters lives are shaped by being up in the air all over the USA. Kendrick has her eyes opened to the brutal realities of sacking a real flesh and blood person and Clooney’s ironclad persona beginning to crack as he falls in love with one of his casual encounters (played beautifully by Vera Farmiga).
Outstanding moments? There are some.
– The incongruity of Clooney, the self-absorbed shark, trying to talk his prospective brother-in-law into going ahead with marriage to Clooney’s sister is one.
– The head shot scenes of person after person hearing the news that their ‘services are no longer required’ (from someone that they have never met before). Work is income, work is dignity, work is sustaining family life, work embodies hopes and dreams … To watch all this being stripped away in a few seconds on a person’s face is moving and draining stuff.
– Clooney’s face as the film ends staring up at an airport departure board and a life of endless travel, alone.
Parting thoughts? – a surprisingly downbeat thought-provoking movie. The big theme for me was that while relationships may well be the heaviest burden in our backpacks, they are what make our journey both possible and meaningful. To try to live without them is to destroy our own humanity.
This all made me think again of Michael Schulter and relationalism. Not long ago he wrote a Cambridge Paper on ‘Is Capitalism Morally Bankrupt?’ arguing how capitalism desperately needs reforming in light of relational thinking. Well worth reading. It was unaccountable actions divorced from real relationships that helped fuel the Credit Crunch. In Up in the Air, we have another all too realistic glimpse into people being treated in in-human ways in the name of supposedly efficient ‘systems’ and the dictates of the ‘market’. No wonder the cinema was silent at the end.