Take it from one of the terminated: Reitman gets it right

Posted in journalism trends, movies by Diane on December 13, 2009

The terminator at work

What can I tell you about “Up in the Air” that you haven’t already heard (or read) before? It’s very good. Manages to be topical, touching and lightly satirical, no mean feat.

Let me add, as one of the terminated, that Jason Reitman does a very fine job conveying the absurdity and pathos of this particular recession. I burst out laughing when my company’s HR chief oulined job placement services similar to the ones George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham smoothly proffers: What type of assistance could this outfit contracted by my now ex-company realistically provide a laid-off journo? The industry was already in a free fall — and it wasn’t about to get better.

Almost one year later, journalists are still getting pink slips as one round of layoffs begets another. I’m back to freelancing while my former coworkers work harder than ever to get the papers out with sharply reduced manpower. Everyone, it seems, is crabbier.

But back to the movie. Reitman explores something else in the movie, based on a Walter Kirn novel published after the first economic downturn of the decade, and it’s this: Rootless, unencumbered adults who like it that way. I didn’t expect to identify with Bingham’s character — after all he was the professional terminator and I was among the whacked — but I did. You know that depressing Omaha way station that passes for Ryan’s residence? I had an apartment like that for a brief period, and the initial attraction was its antiseptic hotel feel. (In actuality I hated it and soon moved to a cozy old triplex several towns over.)

There were other aspects of Ryan’s character that resonated: I don’t travel that much, but others in my family do, my older brother taking flight where my father left off. The movie’s tension between middle-aged professionals and a bright-eyed go-getter short on empathy? Also on the money.

Certain critics have carped that Reitman doesn’t do enough to grapple with the ugliness of lost livelihoods. But that’s not the movie Reitman set out to make. This movie, the director’s third, is his warmest so far: “Thank You for Smoking” served up pointed satire, while “Juno,” sweet as it was, reveled in its quirkiness and slanguage to occasionally off-putting degree. “Up in the Air” is Reitman’s most realistic, and while it does teeter on the brink of sentimentality when Ryan visits his family in northern Wisconsin, it never completely succumbs.

What “Up in the Air” does do is show a smooth operator forced to question his commitment to non-commitment at a time when employers are severing their ties daily. It offers no easy answers or pleasing solution. You know why? Because there aren’t any.

In today’s NYT, Frank Rich bemoans “the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us.” He gloomily predicts even more political fallout from lawmakers squeamishness about financial reform, writing that “Washington remains strangely oblivious to the mood out there.” Wall Street may believe recovery’s at hand, he concludes, “but the fate of Americans on the ground remains very much up in the air.”

In the meantime, go see this very grownup — and entertaining, I hasten to add — movie.


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