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Cinema in Focus: ‘Up in the Air’

It's an insightful film about the choices we make

3 Stars — Insightful

Detaching ourselves from others is one way to avoid having to carry the weight and responsibilities of life. The difficulty with this solution is that when we avoid any relationship that requires the weight of commitment and the responsibilities of caring for another, we end up isolated and alone. This truth is insightfully presented by Jason Reitman (Juno) as both director and screenwriter in his film Up in the Air.

Sharing the writing credit with Sheldon Turner (The Longest Yard), Reitman’s central character is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney).

A middle-age man who is approaching the dubious distinction of racking up 10 million frequent flier miles on American Airlines, Bingham is hired by companies to downsize their companies. With the companies unwilling to fire their own employees, Bingham flies in as a hired gun to do it for them. Although this unusual job requires Bingham to be detached from the people he is firing, the fact is that he has chosen to be detached in the rest of his life, too.

In his world of spending 322 days a year in the air and in hotels, Bingham’s path crosses with a woman of a similar lifestyle, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). In mutual self-interest, they begin a relationship of witty repartee and uncommitted sex. Predictably, this is found to be insufficient, but in an unexpected way we won’t reveal.

When Bingham’s company hires a young woman who talks the company into firing by Internet teleconferencing, Bingham’s pushback finds him taking her on the road to show her the human side of the industry. The young woman is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Having followed her boyfriend to Omaha, Neb., Keener’s obvious intelligence and ingenuity is not matched by her life experience or maturity. It is her conversations with Bingham that reveal both the nature of his decisions and the emptiness of his life choices.

The film works on several levels and is a modern morality play of sorts in its reflection and indictment of our culture. The increasing isolation of individuals in our society because of mobility, technology and lack of commitment to others reflects life in the 21st century. The depiction of firing employees and downsizing companies is a relevant and all-too-real reflection of our current economy.

Bingham is a type of everyman in his professional execution. At the peak of his career, his experience of being regarded as passé by technology and his struggle to justify his seasoned approach to a much younger replacement is all too familiar. Also sadly familiar is his lack of morality and compassion, because there are no spiritual values or community support to be found in his life. He has even lost meaningful connections with his family.

The strength of the film lies not only in the impeccable acting, but also the excellent writing. The characters are believable while also being engaging, and some nonprofessional actors are incorporated into the “firing” scenes that bring the film an unusual depth of authenticity. The talks that Bingham gives as a motivational speaker as well as his conversations with Goran and Keener are not only well written, but will cause any viewer to think a little more deeply about their own life choices.

It’s in this deeper revelation of what does — and doesn’t — make a purposeful, meaningful and fulfilling life that makes the film a gift to all who view it.

Discussion:

» The astute statements at the end of the film about the coping mechanisms of those who lose their jobs are by real people expressing their real experiences. How do you cope with your losses?

» Explaining his job as “taking people at their most fragile and setting them adrift,” Bingham recognizes that however professional he may be in the moment, there is a tremendous indifference that occurs when a person is fired. When a company must downsize, what do you think should be done to make the process humane?

» If detachment leaves us alone and love causes us pain, how do we navigate between those two realities? Some religions suggest that we detach from life so we will feel no pain, while Jesus tells us that we are to love and then forgive when we are hurt. How do you choose to live: protecting yourself by detaching, or connecting with others by loving?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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