Tuesday, February 18, 2020

To Make Limbo Tolerable

Some anniversaries only matter to you and no one else which is just the way it is. But I recently passed the ten year mark of being laid off from a certain showbiz-related news program where I had worked for several years, which was a pretty good job all things considered, and I can’t help but think about it for a few minutes. The day I was let loose from there back into the world remains as vivid now as it was then and my life has never really been the same since. That’s going to happen. The people I know now are different and my world is different which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. And, yes, it’s weird that I’m thinking about it after all this time but anniversaries have a way of doing that to you, so I’ll get over it soon enough. Anyway, the day this happened in December 2009 was exactly one week after seeing Jason Reitman’s UP IN THE AIR on opening day, a film about the very thing I would soon be going through, I just didn’t know it at the time. My feelings about UP IN THE AIR have always been somewhat conflicted as a result since, after all, what did Jason Reitman and George Clooney have to tell me about being unemployed? About what that actually felt like? Ten years later, the movie still has an undeniable slickness that makes me keep it on cable in the background but I still feel like I’m watching from a distance as if being reminded how this film is only ever going to care so much. Removed from the feeling that it’s trying to say something about the-time-we’re-living-in is an equal sense that the film never wants to stray too far from first class and spend all that much time worrying about what it’s never going to be able to change.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), expert corporate downsizer for employment consulting firm CRC, spends much of his life flying one from one city to another with the simple job of firing people. Along with a sideline gig as a motivational speaker, he is forever in love with his first class lifestyle of impermanence maintaining almost zero attachments and never having to stay in one place for long, even meeting a businesswoman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) with a similar attraction to life out there on the road between places. But when he’s called back to his home office in Omaha, Ryan is faced with the possibility of it all going away due to the arrival of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young and ambitious new employee at the firm with the goal of making all business done remotely over video links, completely removing any need for Ryan to travel. With boss Craig (Jason Bateman) still figuring out how to proceed, Ryan is sent back on the road with Natalie so she can learn about what he does and what their job really entails. They are soon met by Alex but this new relationship along with an impending family wedding causes Ryan to finally question everything he’s become for the very first time.

Revisiting UP IN THE AIR a decade later, far removed from its status as an Oscar contender (six nominations, zero wins), the film plays as a smooth ride with a tight script and solid role for George Clooney, even if it never seems willing to stare into the pit of the moment the way the great MICHAEL CLAYTON featuring the actor did two years earlier. With a screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner based on the novel by Walter Kirn, more than anything UP IN THE AIR feels like what began life as a satire on the coldblooded nature displayed by corporate America as people are tossed out that was eventually smoothed over to better relate directly to the present moment in a more hopefully empathic way. The remnants of the darker approach still hang in the air, the briefly seen Zach Galifanakis getting fired introduced for comic effect which takes a shift as we glimpse his actual pain and the plot point of the business plan to fire people via what we now commonly think of as Skype serves as a reminder of the ruthlessness that’s always going to be involved no matter what the business entails. Playing a little now as a time capsule of the hope of early Obama and Blackberries everywhere, the film’s well-publicized gimmick of using actual victims of such cutbacks to respond to their firings lends the snappy patter a jolt of verisimilitude with the genuine hurt and anger coming through. But looking at it now the conceit feels slightly undercut when at one point the film removes the documentary element to have it actually cut to the lead actors, turning the pain of real people into reverse shots for George Clooney and Anna Kendrick to react to, even if the genuine pain is still felt through their eyes in these moments.

At the very least it’s the characters that are the film’s greatest strength with plotting loose enough that it’s easy to miss exactly why Natalie travels with Ryan in the first place, which is fine, and the way it dispenses with that plot for long stretches allows the film to breathe as it focuses on them, with sequences like the tech conference party during a stay in Miami charmingly playing a little like a memory recalled later on with a wistful fondness. But there’s maybe too much of a wannabe Alexander Payne vibe to the approach both on the surface (Omaha home base, Rolfe Kent score) and down below (character examination during a long trip where someone is confronted with certain truths about their life) with what feels like a sort of meta commentary on what we presume to be the secret life of George Clooney. Along with a dose of 70s-style naturalism that never feels entirely lived in, the smoothly laid out plot schematics always feel a little overly calculated when they have to come into play, as if the characters are shifted around on the chess board because the movie tells them to as opposed to simply being.

It’s the look at Ryan Bingham’s daily rituals while traveling that serves as part of the approach, the calming reverse of Edward Norton’s outlook on the lifestyle in FIGHT CLUB from ten years earlier, so the emphasis is really on the way he lives, one hotel to the next, one airport to the next, the rapid fire montages of his travels appropriately seeming out of a commercial. The idea of what this job is doing to the insides of the people in this industry that’s designed to thrive in misery is left mostly unexamined, the ‘can sir’ one flight attendant asks him about in a brief misunderstanding left hanging. His life never lingers in the moment so the film never does, at least not enough, the ‘What’s in your Backpack?’ motivational speech aimed at getting rid of all the dead weight in your life is used as the partial framing device to all this, an extension of the speech he falls back on during firings to convince people that this is a sort of rebirth. All he does is send them out into limbo which, after all, is where he’s happiest, so why shouldn’t they be, with nothing but the totem like device of those packets they hand out to everyone being let go which I suspect will do them little good at all beyond giving them the strength to actually walk out of that room to face the inevitable.

Maybe it’s fitting that there’s a hollow quality to all this slickness in the world Ryan embraces, gladly residing in that limbo with the closest thing he has to a friend a fuck buddy who’s moved on so bonding with Alex during their meet cute over a mutual love of how synthetic the lifestyle is and the brief nudity courtesy of a body double for Vera Farmiga plays as a superfluous element which feels cheap and artificial but maybe that’s part of the point. Even when we go with Ryan to the more genuine world of his family life back in snowy Wisconsin it still feels a little manufactured as if the handheld modesty on display is what equals reality. As it is, one of the most natural moments in the entire film becomes the awkward silence between Ryan and his sisters, siblings that have nothing to say to each other beyond the awkward smiles, which suddenly feels like it takes take place in a world that is completely recognizable.

As much as the emphasis on showing life out on the road and those establishing gods eye view of all the cities flown into, Reitman’s direction is often best when he cuts out the talk so at times there’s the feeling the film knew how to slice certain scenes down to the essentials and play out moments through the eyes so the film is ok with spending moments with the characters in those silences, whether a shot of Kendrick sitting in a room of empty chairs that were likely once occupied by people no longer working there or the way Clooney’s eyes read at the possibility of anything at all messing with his enjoyment up there. The lengthy conversation between the three leads after Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend via text also feels like it genuinely comes out of the characters and plays as totally relaxed even as it goes for a few obvious laughs, each of them letting their veils drop as much as they’re willing to. “Life can underwhelm you that way,” Farmiga’s Alex tells Natalie at one point and it’s one of the better lines in a film that ultimately is about people who try to keep that from happening but some of them know a little bit more about dealing with that than others, the way Ryan Bingham treats his job with seriousness—the film isn’t that callous about its subject—but he also wants to keep away from the real world for as long as he can.

The bitterness towards it all felt more palpable a few years later in Reitman’s YOUNG ADULT, likely thanks to that script by Diablo Cody and the way UP IN THE AIR discards the shocking fate of one victim feels like a reminder that some people are mere collateral damage who can’t be saved, not in the midst of all this cruelty. The way Natalie reduces one older guy the size of a linebacker to tears as he’s fired via the video linkup makes her pat words of encouragement ring all the more hollow, the workflow of downsizing she focuses on morphing into actual pain she has no idea what to do with. The way Ryan has to finally use his motivational skills for the exact opposite reasons he’s gotten used to, to talk someone into not letting go for once becomes his own harsh lesson of a certain truth that he always refused to grasp for himself. The moral of UP IN THE AIR seems to be not about knowing what you want but realizing what you’re missing out on, the pitfalls of what it is to be a ‘human parentheses’ as Ryan finally realizes he is. You have to be somewhere in this world after all. In the end, if you’re everywhere, you’re nowhere.

The film is still a smooth ride although maybe it needed to be more than that, maybe we needed to feel the uncertainty Ryan finally grasps a little more in the end, the stylized shot of Natalie moving away from him late in the film serving as a reminder of a connection he’ll never be able to hold onto. Granted, most people only change so much by the time they get to a certain age and when he lets go of his suitcase at the end it feels like a tiny, significant step, a realization of someone who never realized how trapped he really was in all that freedom and what it actually meant. But in being about someone who realizes what he never had, this also means it’s never about what he lost. This never becomes someone who chooses to quit his job or refuse to fire someone since that wouldn’t have accomplished anything and even if the character does walk out on his big motivational speaking engagement, another one of those plot points that feels a little too calculated, it’s not like he gives up anything so instead of a Billy Wilder ending the movie gives Ryan Bingham more of a Hal Ashby ending, another version of Warren Beatty’s George Roundy at the end of SHAMPOO as he realizes what he’s missing a little too late. Looking at the film now as a flashback of The Way Things Were in 2009, or in the early months of 2010 when it’s set, it becomes clear how everything has gotten meaner this many years later and by now there’s no end in sight. To this film, firings and layoffs are a natural force, like the weather. I guess the cruelty is too. The distance Ryan and his company keeps is almost troubling and feels more troubling now in a world that has only gotten more willing to discard you when that time comes. If anything, the film is a reminder that it’s nice up there in first class, I say that from experience. Of course, eventually you have to leave. That’s where the world is. That’s where your home needs to be.

It’s now been several years since George Clooney last appeared onscreen in a feature film so it’s hard not to think we’re missing a few films he might have gotten made that could have at least aspired to what this does, the sort of film he was striving to make—at times with more success than others—during the peak of his star power. I miss the guy. Even if you can sense when he knows exactly how to play certain moments to get the audience on his side he’s always totally relaxed and confident here which helps make the vulnerability that finally emerges seem totally real. The way he holds himself onscreen means no one, no one, can come close to saying an exasperated, “Oh, fuck,” the way he does and damn it, he’s really, really good. Vera Farmiga projects just as much confidence in her own way, offering a cool authority that plays well off Clooney during their initial flirtation and especially when it becomes clear how much more assured of her situation she really is while Anna Kendrick is especially strong, the chipper quality of her line readings displaying her eagerness that cut through with moments where it feels like what’s going on is told through her eyes, truly seeing what she’s chosen to be a part of. The strong supporting cast also includes Jason Bateman as Clooney’s boss bringing a callous pragmatism to what he’s in charge of, a particularly effective Melanie Lynskey who is so good in projecting reams of unspoken feelings about the brother she barely knows during her few minutes onscreen, Danny McBride with a vulnerability unlike any of his other roles, Jason Reitman regular J.K. Simmons nailing his one scene getting fired and Amy Morton who brings a grounded determination to her role as the sister who won’t let Ryan get away with any excuses for even a moment.

Even if it seemed like a lot of things were collapsing during the last few years of the aughts, looking back on it now it becomes clear that we didn’t know how good we had it. The day after I got laid off in December 2009, during a very rainy weekend, I got a call from a certain friend of mine who asked me to meet her at the House of Pies where over coffee she gave me her own version of Ryan Bingham’s “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world…” speech. Only since it wasn’t her job it was for the right reasons. So what she said helped, it really did, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say that I may not still be writing this if not for what she did that day. The eventual falling out a number of years later turned out to be more painful than losing a job ever could be, especially one where I had to fake an interest in the Kardashians. And maybe I still don’t quite know where the last ten years have led me to. I don’t know where I am now. I only know that there are people who come into your life and leave a mark which never fully goes away, something I still don’t quite know what to do with. Which, no matter how aware I am of my own ambivalence towards it, is of course a reminder of what this film about, the things those real people who have been laid off say near the end about what really matters in the grand scheme of your life. That you have those people close to you which, in its way, can be its own kind of pain. And in between all that is the luxury of being up there, where you really want to be, where you like to think you’re safe, at least for as long as they let you stay.

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