'Up in the Air' hits different during the worst economic crisis of our lifetime

Paramount Pictures

When the pandemic began, there was a tendency among masochists to revisit films like Contagion or Safe to brace for the worst. Now it’s clear that the ruling party will allow COVID-19 to ravage unabated until a vaccine arrives, my appetite for doom looks a little different. With millions out of work and the government blithely abandoning unemployment benefits, I’ve been thinking about mass layoffs in popular culture.

You have Kendall Roy’s slashing of Vaulter to please his father in Succession’s second season. There’s Cirque du Soleil’s CEO firing much of his staff in a strange, pre-recorded video where he’s wearing ”Bono glasses.” And while the drab frequent flyer lifestyle of Jason Reitman’s 2009 drama Up in the Air feels impossible today, its central preoccupation — firing people quickly and efficiently — has never been more vital to the worst people in America. While it’s easy to bemoan overly cruel HR maneuvers in this pandemic, Up in the Air asks if there’s ever a courteous way to tell someone they’re being axed.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer-for-hire who is closing in on 10 million total miles. He’s tasked with flying around the country to slash workplaces for bosses. Management gives him a list of people who have to go, he summons them to an office, where he’ll gently rip the band-aid off and provide resources to emerge on the other side in one piece. Despite the grim nature of his work, Ryan is something of an idealist. He believes that sitting down with a person to deliver the bad news is more compassionate than a Skype call. “What we do here is brutal and it does leave people devastated. But there’s a dignity to the way I do it,” he says at one point. “What, stabbing them in the chest instead of the back,” remarks his boss, played by Jason Bateman, who sports a career-worst haircut. He’s not wrong, if a little more brazen in his cruelty.

A permanent bachelor with marginal connection to his two sisters, Ryan manages to suppress the psychological damage of this lifestyle. Meeting Vera Farmiga’s Alex, another road warrior with a similar penchant for the cold grind of business travel, comes close to shaking his equilibrium. Initially, the pair flirt in terms they can understand — comparing rental car companies and their stash of heavy credit cards on a bar table. They're eminently watchable.

Although the film centers their largely no-strings-attached relationship, his bond with the company’s latest hire, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, in a star-making role,) is perhaps more crucial. Natalie, a straitlaced, McKinsey-minded youngster who uses buzzwords like “glocal," has arrived to implement a new method for doing their jobs: mass firing sessions over webcam, right from the company's Omaha headquarters. Ryan recognizes this as a threat to his allegedly noble approach to slashing offices and, more importantly, his drifter lifestyle. It's implicitly a chance to downsize the downsizers. During a staff meeting to introduce Natalie and the new initiative, Bateman’s character says with a smirk: ”It is one of the worst times on record for America...this is our moment.”

If that sort of vampiric admission seemed cartoonish in 2009, surely the last few months have revealed just how many companies can turn an international crisis into record profits. The tech giants Alphabet, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon reported $28.6 billion in quarterly net profits last week. Amazon sales surged up 40 percent from this time last year, and Facebook’s profit rose 98 percent. Billionaire wealth, including each of those companies’ CEOS, are rising to record highs during one of the worst job markets on record. Of course, that still hasn’t stopped some of them from reaping the benefits of PPP loans.

By the time of Up in the Air’s release, the recession had begun to subside, but the pop culture of the time felt its immediate aftershocks. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story premiered months earlier. In January, the poorly received Renée Zellweger vehicle New in Town took on a similar premise — her bougie consultant is tasked with restructuring, and ultimately shuttering, a tapioca plant in Minnesota. Without minimizing the widespread damage of the 2008 financial crisis, these stories can’t help but feel quaint compared to our potentially imminent collapse.

Several reviews upon release compared Up in the Air to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which links them as workplace romantic dramedies, but misses a meaningful difference in class dynamics. Although they strike a similar tonal balance, the workers in Up in the Air only show up in incensed, sometimes exaggerated montage sequences sending righteous invectives in Ryan’s direction, who's likely just given them a canned optimistic reading of their firing. “Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now, and it’s because they sat there they were able to do it,” is one of his go-to lines, before asking them to clean out their desk.

As a director, Reitman is an unfussy presence, who wisely communicates the recession's worst tolls through suggestion rather than smarm or indignation. He largely stays out of his star's way to ooze dirtbag white collar charisma. Although Clooney's Ryan trades in facades — from conveying a cool, assured business traveler to the envy of his eventual brother-in-law (a sweatered-up Danny McBride) — he can’t maintain it forever. Up in the Air isn’t quite cynical or soul-crushing, but lands on something uniquely bittersweet. Ryan is protected from the worst effects of the financial crisis for now, but the specter of instability forever lingers.

It's harder to imagine how he'd survive a crisis like the pandemic, which has established the awkward Zoom call layoff as a new status quo for bosses. Nearly every industry that seemed like a stable landing spot six months ago is suddenly on flimsy ground. Not to argue that Ryan's situation is as precarious as the workers he's let go — or the invisible working class labor cast to the film's margins — but even as the movie progresses, you feel him growing more aware of his expendable existence. And maybe that's okay: his only prevailing belief, besides abandoning commitment, is restoring dignity to mass firings. These convictions, however noble they might be on paper, obscure the fact that his job shouldn't exist in the first place.