In the corporate world, there is a thing called “change management,” which is built on the idea that when things change in peoples’ lives, they go through a sort of grieving process. If you move someone’s desk, introduce a new filing system or even change their break times, people can become inordinately upset. As a discipline, change management’s mission statement is to get employees to calm down and accept transitions.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) is the ultimate change manager. His job is to fly around the country, firing people he’s never met and will never see again. When he breaks the news, his victims react in any number of ways, ranging from indignant to suicidal. He talks them through the next five or 10 minutes, spinning their termination not as a rejection, but as an opportunity to pursue dormant dreams or strike out in the world as an entrepreneur or conqueror.
In the current economic climate, he is very busy indeed. He happily flies more than 300 days a year because he hates returning home to Omaha, Neb., where his office is headquartered.
As a bringer and embracer of change, Ryan sees himself as living beyond its bony grasp. But when his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman, “Extract”), calls him and the rest of his colleagues back to Nebraska, he finds that his beloved, footloose way of life may not be immune to economic pressures. A young, new hire named Natalie (Anna Kendrick, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”) has hatched a plan to fire people via video conference calls instead of in person, defraying the millions spent each year flying the termination team around the country. Ryan strenuously objects, accusing Natalie of being insensitive to the intricacies of the job. Craig sends her out on the road with Ryan to learn the ropes and to field-test her new system.
In the meantime, Ryan has met his female road-warrior counterpart in Alex (Vera Farmiga, “Orphan”). They have only met up when their schedules allow, but he bends his routine more and more to see her. Natalie encourages Ryan to try establishing “something real” with Alex, which is like encouraging Dracula to make out with garlic bread. However, Alex’s pull is too strong, and Ryan falls for her. What he ends up learning is that no matter how closely he’s insulated himself against change, it’s simply inevitable. And by insulating himself for so long, he’s exponentially increased his pain.
“Up in the Air” is pitch-perfect, working on multiple levels with virtually no missteps. What makes it especially impressive is that it takes the familiar romantic-comedy model — in which the recalcitrant, commitment-adverse man is made by unexpected love to soften his position — and turns it soundly on its ear. Somehow, the story’s thematic lynchpins resonate through and against each other, delivering a profound gut punch that comments on modern alienation, rejection, ambitious careerism, aging, loneliness and compassion.
In short, it’s the human condition in 109 minutes. —Mike Robertson