Up in the Air
Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Sheldon Turner, adapting Walter Kirn’s novel

The Road
Produced and distributed by Dimension Films
Directed by John Hillcoat
Screenplay by Joe Penhall, adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel


George Clooney, well-groomed and exceedingly fit at 49, seems perfect as Ryan Bingham, the conscienceless protagonist of Up in the Air.  He’s a man who disposes of people for both profit and recreation.  By day he is a frequent-flying hatchet man or, to use the preferred term in America’s ever-expanding dictionary of euphemisms, “transition counselor.”  He flies wherever needed 320 days a year to fire people whose bosses would rather not swing the ax themselves.  After hours, he philanders as ruthlessly as he terminates.  Once his job is done and he’s had his fun, he moves on to make his next connection, whether it’s a flight or another cutie.  All the while, whether on land or in the ether, he floats contentedly on a cloud of well-nurtured self-congratulation.

Bingham is good at his job because he has fully embraced the virtues of the transience he urges on his “clients.”  So pleased with his modern no-strings life, he has even packaged it for a spin-off from his primary vocation.  He gives inspirational lectures to other peripatetic businesspeople.  Bingham is best known for an address entitled, “How Much Does Your Life Weigh?”  He begins this spiel by inviting his listeners to fill their backpacks—clothing, cars, homes, friends, siblings, spouses.  “Feel the weight of that bag,” he urges them.  “Make no mistake; your relationships are the heaviest components in your life.  Some animals were meant to carry each other, over a lifetime—star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans.”  Pausing for effect, he concludes, “We are not swans.  We are sharks.”  The trick to living well, Bingham assures his brave Brooks Brothers brothers and sisters, is to keep moving.  “The slower we move, the faster we die.”

As we follow Bingham’s typical day, we see just how apt the shark image is.  He cruises corporate cubicles, a predatory smile baring his perfect teeth.  And while we listen to him smooth-talk one and all, we can also hear the growl beneath his purr.  Bingham has perfected a murderously deft technique that might be called empathetic cool.  It is one part commiseration to three parts dry ice.  When one of his terminatees (that invaluable character actor J.K. Simmons) gruffly refuses to roll over for Bingham, the terminator knows exactly what to say.  Bob the firee wants to know just what he’s supposed to say to his children.  His face eloquent with understanding, Bingham leans a bit closer to Bob and asks how much the firm paid him to give up his dreams 25 years ago.  Bob has to admit that, yes, he did sell out, and in fact he did so over and over as his salary increased annually.  Bingham smiles understandingly.  He then asks Bob to imagine how much his children will admire him for leaving the corporation and following those neglected dreams.  Soon Bob is thanking Ryan for the favor he’s doing him.

Of course, Bingham doesn’t care what happens to Bob or any of the people he axes.  A young colleague asks if he follows up to see how these people fare.  “No,” he replies decisively.  “Nothing good would come of that.”  Spoken like the consummate professional he clearly is.

But then Bingham’s firm brings in Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a recent Cornell graduate, who has a cost-saving plan that threatens to burden his own backpack insupportably.  She wants the firm to go “glocal.”  With teleconferencing, she points out, you can fire people globally while never leaving the locale of your own cubicle.  Bingham is dismayed, for, like Bob, he has a dream.  He’s been striving to compile ten million frequent-flyer miles on his favorite airline and become the eighth member of a privileged club entitled to an endless stream of upgrades and free car rentals.  If Natalie succeeds in grounding him, his dream will go down in flames.

Meanwhile, Alex (Vera Farmiga), his latest babe, is offering him pleasant diversion.  A motel-lounge pick-up, she brags prettily that she is flexible enough to do it in the rest rooms of commuter airplanes.  As her masculine name and wanton behavior suggest, she just may be Bingham’s true soulless mate.  Still, the ten-million-mile man is hard to land.  When Alex detects signs that Bingham may be making ready to book another connection, she chides him: “I’m the woman you don’t have to worry about.  Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.”  Could a man ask for more?

Based on Walter Kirn’s novel of the same title, Up in the Air has been directed by Jason Reitman as a rueful satire on what passes for sophistication among our business class.  It’s an entertaining enough film but hardly the best of the year, as a surprising number of commentators have hailed it.  Reitman fails to bring off the novel’s central conceit: the rootless anomie bred by the high-flying corporate lifestyle.  For one thing, his leading man seems too nice to be the lone killer shark he purports to be.  Also, Reitman willfully misleads us.  We are carefully set up to expect a fairly conventional resolution, and then in the last few minutes everything is turned on its ear.  I’m all for surprise endings, but they shouldn’t be arrived at by means of preposterously rigged characterization and motive.  Perhaps Reitman followed Ryan’s advice too closely and unburdened his backpack of narrative logic.

At the other end of the emotional scale, there’s John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, The Road, a bleak vision of the near future.  In the aftermath of some unspecified worldwide catastrophe, personal loyalty and self-sacrifice stand—just barely—as the only virtues left in a blasted landscape.

Those who know McCarthy’s novel will be impressed but, perhaps, also disheartened by Hillcoat’s reverential treatment of his source.  Like the book, the film follows the journey of a man and his young son as they walk through a pitiless environment stripped of all vegetable and animal life except for a remnant of brutalized humanity.  (McCarthy never says what they have survived or how.)   Of this remnant, a significant portion have reverted to the war of all against all.  Tribal bands maraud the land in pursuit of food, preferably young children and their mothers.  Since they do not have refrigeration, these cannibals store their human food live, amputating their victims a limb at a time for their meals and cauterizing the resulting stumps to keep the meat fresh for another repast.

Hillcoat has rendered the novel’s desolate, despairing atmosphere quite well, and his leads, Viggo Mortensen (the nameless man) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (his son), are utterly convincing and very moving.  Mortensen is half-crazed in his absolute determination to defend his son, even if it means killing him before the cannibals catch him.  For his part, Smit-McPhee fully renders the boy’s nearly constant state of terror, interrupted only by his desire to help the very few nonthreatening people they meet along their way.  The father and son’s mutual devotion in the midst of a nearly unimaginable nightmare makes this grim film bearable.  But Hillcoat’s decision to bring in Char­lize Theron as the boy’s mother seems to me a distracting mistake.  In the novel, the boy asks about his mother from time to time, and the man dreams of her occasionally, but otherwise she’s a poignant absence in their lives.  By putting her into the film, Hillcoat calls attention to one of the novel’s improbabilities.  On the page, we can accept the wife’s disappearance without questioning its plausibility.  It is enough to know that she could not bear the horrible prospect facing her family and decided to remove herself before the inevitable horror ahead.  Once introduced into the film, however, the woman forces us to wonder how she reached her moment of overwhelming despair, and Hillcoat doesn’t dramatize this effectively.

The apparent inevitability that haunts the woman creates another problem for the film.  In the novel, McCarthy writes as if everything is foregone.  Consequently, there is not much room for narrative’s traditional responsibility to resolve human struggles.  Storytelling, with its inherent drive to get to what happens next and thereby the conclusion, is an art that makes us hopeful and human.  But in The Road it often seems there is only the road along which things happen, with no meaningful conclusion in sight.  This is McCarthy’s strategy, of course.  He tells us for 300 pages that the end has arrived and there is nothing much else to say.  His narrator seems stunned, delivering this message in deliberately flat, repetitive prose.  His recitation of events in the dwindling lives of the novel’s forlorn characters is just a matter of one misery after another.  Hillcoat registers this very effectively, but on his nearly colorless screen it wears one down after a while—a short while, at that.  And I don’t think this is McCarthy’s ultimate intention.

The novel more clearly than the film holds out one bare possibility of a continuing human narrative, and it lies with the son.  “Sometimes,” the father reveals, “I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice—difficult as they are to remember.  All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”  His lingering faith gives him the courage to urge the boy on.  “You have to keep carrying the fire,” he tells him.  When the boy asks what fire, he responds, “The fire inside you.”  It is this allegiance to the fire of paternal love that finally makes this a genuine narrative for all its seemingly bleak absurdity.  Heroic storytelling has not succumbed to cannibalism after all

The image of paternal fire also appears at the end of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.  In a dream, the protagonist finds himself being led into the next world by his dead father carrying a torch.  This image seems to be McCarthy’s warrant that love and dedication are still possible in a world populated by selfish frequent flyers compulsively in flight from traditional responsibilities.