I happened upon a curious statistic the other day in an article in the “New York Times” The article, which mostly discussed how some colleges are getting rid of their not-so-marketable liberal arts degrees, brought this up:
“In 1971, 37 percent [of college freshmen] responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.”
Now more than ever, we live in a capitalist culture where productivity and profit are king – except, if you haven’t noticed, things aren’t so profitable lately. My dad just got laid off since his company is going out of business. He’s close enough to retirement age that it’s no big deal, but he’s had to endure seeing countless co-workers shuffle out the door not knowing how they’re going to put food on the table next month.
Breaking this kind of news to people is the job of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in the newest film out of Paramount Pictures “Up in the Air”. He gets paid to jet around telling people they’re getting fired. He’s pretty good at letting people down easy and enduring myriad forms of verbal abuse, and this line of work is perfect for a cold-hearted middle-aged bachelor like him. He doesn’t see much of his family, though – after all, he’s got so many frequent flier miles that he considers the air to be his home more than he does his sparsely furnished apartment.
A few complications arise, though, of course. Bingham’s boss (Jason Bateman) is toying with the idea of taking his employees off the road and putting them in front of teleconferencing terminals. Bingham gets stuck with taking the new girl (Anna Kendrick) – the one who recommended this idea in the first place – on the road, all the while feeling that his whole insular way of life is threatened.
And, of course, there’s a love interest. Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) at a hotel bar, and their relationship is defined by the fact that they’re both road warriors who are just nonchalantly looking for someone to hang out with and bang. Ryan and Alex’s banter is entertaining, and director Jason Reitman (“Juno”) does an incredible job of turning the stale meet-cute romantic comedy on its head. Hell, if that’s all this film was, it’d be pretty damned entertaining.
Except that’s not all that it is – the meet-cute isn’t even the point. The film utilizes it only as a fun distraction from the real questions it brings up: How has the identity of corporate America changed in the face of the recession? Does technology bring us together or push us apart – and what are the consequences of either case? And, of course, the eternal debate between Paul Simon and John Donne: Can a man be truly content as an island, closed off from any deep interaction with anyone? Or, despite everything else, is no man an island? It’s been a while since I’ve run across “anything” this multilayered and nuanced, let alone in a popular film.
As illustrated by that statistic from the “Times” article, Generation Y’s priorities are completely out of whack. It’s easy for young people, time-starved and focused on their careers, surrounded by technology, to mistake Facebook friends and Twitter followings as real human relationships, and to substitute emotionless text messaging for meaningful interaction. To a certain extent, I’m guilty as charged, but at least I realize what’s going on. Our lives, like Ryan Bingham’s, are filled with empty surrogates. To accept that at face value – to face life in a purely goal-oriented fashion, insulated from one another – is to ignore the message of the film: life’s more fun, after all, with a co-pilot.
Great performances all around – it’s weird to see a movie like this as an Oscar contender, but it’s totally that good. Four stars.