In Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham is a person whose underappreciated job it is to takes away other people jobs. More specifically, he's hired be companies with bosses too busy and too cowardly to fire people themselves. Says director Jason Reitman: "If you're going to make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living and you still want to like him, that actor better be damn charming and I don't think there’s a more charming actor alive than George Clooney". I can't improve on that.
The other half of his profession is as a sort of life coach, and he's invited to give motivational speeches to give people's lives some direction-- except that his philosophy is to abandon all commitment. Relationships hold you down. Physical possessions hold you down. The less you have, the more you can move, and the more places you can go.
You can see how these two jobs fit comfortably in the same person.
There are two other important characters in this movie. One an ambitious young coworker who pushes a plan to fire people by video conferencing. Another is a casual recurring fling that Ryan fires up from time to time. Without going into the details, in their way they each press him to face the question of what's more important, how far you can spread your branches or how deep you dig your roots?
The movie exposes something I will hopefully never have the misfortune of experiencing: The stark uncertainty that people feel when the rug is pulled out from under them, and they suddenly realize their vulnerability. What can they turn to? Who can they turn to? What is there in life that's really real?
There's a lovely song, also titled "Up in the Air" (listen to it) that plays over the second half of the end credits. It drives home the significance of the movie's title. It's really too bad that it's not eligible for Best Original Song because it's that beautiful, it's honest, it deserves some recognition.
I'm up in the air,
Choices drifting by me everywhere
And I can't find the one
That would help me do the work I've left undone,
'Cause I'm up in the air.