Perpetual Motion
Up in the Air tries to address the tensions in life, but it fails to transcend clichés.


Thomas S. Hibbs

Pascal once observed that, in the absence of a framing purpose for human life, the best life was one with access to a host of diversions. Moving its denizens from one diversion to another, modern society would seem to have discovered the key to life in an essentially unsatisfying universe: perpetual motion. In his latest film, Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a character who lives on airplanes flying from one city to another and who thus embodies a life of perpetual motion. Bingham, in the film directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking and Juno), is a “career-transition counselor,” whom businesses across the country hire to fire longtime employees. Charming, unmarried, and without any attachments to persons or places, Bingham is the perfect fit for his position. In a time of economic unrest, Bingham is very busy indeed. As his boss (Jason Bateman) observes, the “worst time for America” is the best time for their business.

Hailed by critics as an Oscar contender, Up in the Air features fine performances, a witty script, and a story line that manages to avoid predictability of tone and resolution. Yet the film is ultimately a disappointment. Perpetual motion, the filmmakers want to say, is only a partial remedy for the ills of human life, as it reflects only a partial truth. Striving to say something more, something significant about its main character, about the tensions between independence and dependence, about the importance of family and friends, the film fails to transcend clichés.

Despite the market for professional terminators, Bingham’s firm, always eager to scale back the budget, hires a spunky, young cost-cutting consultant, Natalie (Anna Kendrick). Armed with the buzzword “glocal,” she announces a new plan, through the use of computer technology, to allow employees like Bingham to meet the global demand for firing while never leaving the office. The travel budget can thus be nearly eliminated. Upset by the realization that his lifestyle will be irrevocably damaged by the new policy, Bingham demonstrates to his boss that Natalie’s inexperience in face-to-face firing will be a liability. The boss decides to send the two of them on the road together so that Bingham can train Natalie.

This is the point at which the intelligence of the film’s script, adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, is most evident. Instead of lapsing into predictable opposition between the older, experienced male and the younger, inexperienced female, the film deploys their time together to bring out the complex humanity of each character. Also involved at this point is Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems to be the perfect female counterpart to Bingham: a businesswoman addicted to the road and interested in occasional trysts. The scene in a hotel lobby in which Alex first meets Natalie, as she sobs over a break-up and collapses into Bingham’s arms, is very humorous, as is the follow-up conversation among the three of them about relationships, marriage, and settling down.

Even as he becomes involved in Natalie’s life and is increasingly attracted to Alex, Bingham maintains a fairly aloof posture. In addition to his day job as a compassionate terminator, Ryan is on the speaking circuit at business conventions, where he focuses on the question, “What’s in your backpack?” He invites his listeners to engage in the thought experiment of putting one material possession after another into a backpack. Asking them to feel the weight of all that stuff, he suggests that opting to “have nothing” could be “exhilarating.” Bingham devotes a subsequent session to the heaviest burden of all: relationships.

Unlike most films about isolated middle-aged men (think of the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There and Bill Murray’s Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation), this film does not wallow in misery and regret. In fact, Bingham is quite amiable and humorous, and not prone to self-pity or regret. Although he never intentionally harms anyone, his only real loyalty is to his frequent-flyer status on American Airlines. Of course, he has no plans to cash in on the miles; the pleasure is in accumulating them. Pressed about his philosophy of life, he states that all of us die alone. There is no point in settling down. “The slower we move,” he observes, “the faster we die.” But for Bingham it is pointless to dwell on such unpleasant facts. That is the point of his perpetual motion.

He is devoted to his craft. As he explains to Natalie, “We prepare people for limbo; we ferry souls across the river of dread.” The personal touch is in part made possible by the absence of any antecedent or consequent contact with the fired employee. After one particularly painful firing, Natalie asks, “Do you ever follow up?” Bingham responds glibly, “Nothing good can come of that.” The callous indifference underlying his superficial sympathy is palpable in a scene toward the end in which Bingham is confronted with the impact of one particular firing. Still, the film only occasionally gives us a glimpse into the darker side of Bingham’s life and career.

Toward the end, it feels the need to say something positive about family life. But there are no admirable families in the film, and hence these final gestures never transcend Bingham’s own cliché about marriage, the one he doesn’t even believe: “Life is better with a partner.” Having avoided a number of the typical traps for films of this sort, Up in the Air falls prey to one of Hollywood’s most common faults: superficial remedies for what have been presented as insoluble problems.

– Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.