Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Up in the Air’: Technology and Modernization Aren’t Always Positive

April 22, 2021 Updated: April 22, 2021

R | 1h 49min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 23 December 2009 (USA)

In the United States, we seem to have a renewed sense of hope—a light at the end of the tunnel after the recent turbulence of dark and dreary days. But many tend to forget that we’ve been through some challenging times before, at least in first-world terms, such as The Great Recession of 2007–2009.

“Up in the Air,” a film that was produced during that period of time, gives us a glimpse into one aspect of that world: corporate downsizing. Here, it is a consulting firm specializing in termination that is hired by company managers who lack the intestinal fortitude to fire their own employees. The film follows one of the firm’s consultants, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), as he travels via commercial airlines to handle his downsizing duties.

man checking in at airport
George Clooney plays a man flying from one place to another, without an emotional home, in “Up in the Air.” (Paramount Pictures)

The film opens with scenes of Ryan boarding and disembarking from various planes, with some zippy quick-cuts of him packing and unpacking his trusty rolling luggage bag in an orderly fashion. In fact, we glean early on that his life is now routine, to mitigate the chaotic world of round-the-clock air travel.

While hanging out in a ubiquitous-looking hotel bar one evening, Ryan comes across a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga). Both travel a lot for work. The two instantly hit it off and are soon drinking together and comparing their multitudinous travel credit cards. This begins a casual relationship in which they hook up whenever their busy schedules (and distance) permit.

Suddenly, Ryan’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), recalls him to their headquarters located in Omaha, Nebraska. A young up-and-comer, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), has convinced Craig that she can help their firm cut fat from its own budget—starting with what she describes as bloated travel allowances for employees.

Since Ryan likes to be on the move constantly, Natalie’s proposal to cut back on employee travel upsets his entire life. Due to work, his traveling has allowed him to see different women, but outside of work, he doesn’t really have much of a social life. Besides an estranged relationship with his family, he has no one to rely on, and he’s OK with that.

To make matters worse, Craig pairs up Natalie with Ryan so that he can train her. Natalie is a number-cruncher, and Ryan is more of a finesse type of person, so the two settle into an uneasy trainer-trainee relationship as they travel to separate people from their jobs.

woman looking at phone
Ryan (George Clooney) and Alex (Vera Farmiga) both travel and lot for work, and they hit it off. (Paramount Pictures)

During one round of terminations, Craig rolls out Natalie’s remote process to terminate employees and wants her to be the first to execute it. As Natalie sits in front of a computer screen, she commences to fire a man who had been working with a company for many years. As she struggles through it, the man can be seen through a frosted glass window sitting in the next room, much to Ryan’s astonishment. Ryan prefers these dismissals to be personal, not artificial and distant.

Later, ironically, Natalie’s boyfriend breaks up with her via a cellphone text message. She’s distraught, and Ryan and Alex (who had been trying to hook up at a hotel), instead attempt to console her. But later, after Alex leaves, Natalie chastises Ryan for not pursuing a more serious relationship with Alex, and Ryan fires back by criticizing how clinical and cold Natalie’s termination methods are.

As much as Ryan is comfortable with the way things are, he suddenly has an epiphanal moment and abandons Natalie on their return trip to Omaha. His new destination—Chicago. He suddenly realizes that he wants to give a more substantial relationship with Alex a shot.

But will she see eye to eye with his new perspective?

poster for Up In the Air
“Up in the Air,” a film about taking the easy way out. (Paramount Pictures)

A Disconnected Culture

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Clooney give a bad performance and he doesn’t disappoint here, but there’s only so much you can do with a questionable script. The film’s melodramatic narrative makes some parts feel like a glorified soap opera. However, it does manage to convey the turmoil that people were going through during The Great Recession fairly effectively.

And the film does reveal that in our fast-paced, technological culture, we often take the easy way out when relating to other human beings—some cheapen love relationships, some do that to work relationships—but the film doesn’t go deeply enough into either.

Or it could be that our culture’s problems feel trivial to me. Even though this film’s main characters wax philosophic about marriage, modernization, and what it means to settle down, in my recent review of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” where people are dealing with much more immediate concerns such as basic survival (food, water, and shelter), I learned something. Things could be much worse than the first-world, existential dilemmas we see in “Up in the Air.”

‘Up in the Air’
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 23, 2009 (USA)
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane