Yes, ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ is a cliché, but it’s made to feel fresh in the new George Clooney film Up in the Air.
It was December 1997. I was working as a timber and joinery salesman in a large builders’ merchants in Edinburgh when I got a message to go up and see the depot manager. He told me that I hadn’t performed well enough after six months in the job. I tried to explain that it was a new product for the company, decisions had been made on purchasing without my advice, and none of the support I’d been promised had been provided. ‘Sorry, the decision’s been made, we’re letting you go’, came the reply.
Just days before Christmas and I was being fired with precisely one week’s pay in lieu of notice. Season’s greetings and fuck you very much.
I’d managed to blank this incident from my brain until I started to watch Up in the Air. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) plays an employee of a company brought in to make people redundant by bosses too cowardly to do the dirty work themselves. There’s a recession on and there’s big bucks to be made because America’s employers are dropping workers like hot bricks. Bingham’s job is to break the bad news, listen to the sacked worker’s reaction, try to provide them with some vague sense of comfort, then ‘push them over the side’. Rather than scripting these opening scenes, director Jason Reitman uses real workers recently made redundant to provide the reactions, a nice touch that brought bad memories flooding back for me. Still, at least I was only losing my job. These sacked American workers were losing their health insurance and benefits, too.
The title of the film comes from the fact that Bingham spends most of his time on aeroplanes - some 270 days per year, in fact. Indeed, he doesn’t really have a home in the normal sense. For him, the departure lounge, the business-class seat, the loyalty card and the faux-sincere greetings of the airline staff are his home and family. But far from being weary about it, he embraces it. This is a life that others would see as empty, but which for him is thankfully devoid of ‘baggage’.
The fly in Bingham’s ointment is a young college graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who has come up with a cost-saving method of firing people – via webcam. Suddenly, Bingham’s jetsetting freedom - and his specialist position - are under threat. He is forced to take Keener out on the road with him to learn the ropes, the better to replace him with new technology. Bingham tries to get across to his young protégé that even in such a ruthless profession, some basic humanity is a wonderful thing. It’s rather reminiscent of Clooney’s closing remark to Juliette Lewis in From Dusk Till Dawn: ‘I may be a bastard, but I’m not a fuckin’ bastard.’
There are a host of cross-cutting contradictions as the film progresses: the corporate henchman feeling his own position under threat, the oh-so-keen young high flyer who longs for marriage and kids with Mr Right, the casual sex that turns into something more.
This means that Up in the Air offers a wide variety of lessons: capitalism can be a bitch; mass production and preprogrammed customer service end up feeling soulless, even pointless; modern managers are cowardly wimps who outsource the difficult decisions; the excitement of air travel can become sterile loneliness; lived experience can provide us with the ability to see the other person’s point of view. On their own, any of these themes could end up being trite and easily reduced to a grab-bag of Alain de Botton-style aphorisms. By skilfully blending them together - with a decent portion of wit and a side order of pathos - Up in the Air manages to provide a decent approximation of humanity and real life.
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The result is a film that is all things to all men. If you want a dig at corporate America, it’s there. If you find modern life empty and meaningless, there’s plenty of that. If you’re looking for a subtle meditation on romance and commitment, you’ve got it.
One theme the film doesn’t examine enough is how little control we have over events. When Bingham and Keener arrive in Detroit, he warns her that she is likely to meet a lot of anger; they’re tough nuts in the Motor City. However, the workers are left to cry or rage against their predicament; there’s nothing they can do but accept their lot, it seems. Economic crisis, once the central issue of politics, now confronts us as a matter of individual misfortune.
The fact that these themes can rest easily beside one another is the result of a clever story, a good script and beautifully executed performances. I find that in every film I see him in, George Clooney is always George Clooney. Lucky for him that he is also handsome, eminently watchable and blessed with a rich tenor voice that makes any line sound good.
Ultimately, the film concludes that true happiness can only be found in other people, not in wealth or inanimate objects. Bingham asks one redundant worker, who had in his youth shown a desire to work with food, how much the company had paid him to give up on his dreams. How many people reach middle age only to feel they achieved nothing? Bingham’s pat line to every worker facing the sack is ‘anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you’re sitting’. In one sense, it’s a cynical sop to get a distraught employee out of the door quietly, but in another sense it becomes a plea to get out of the rat race.
Okay, ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ is a cliché, but Up in the Air manages to make it feel fresher than many other films. That said, it’s still a cliché and, like most clichés, it’s only partly true. As the film demonstrates, the prospect of living without money, which the newly redundant workers face, is pretty unpalatable. The fact that the jet-setting mega-rich of Hollywood can be so sniffy about wealth is perhaps the biggest contradiction of all.