The life of corporate axe Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) runs according to script (actually, a Golden Globe-winning screenplay). When he swipes his frequent-flier card through the airline kiosk, the clerk is prompted to greet him on cue with, “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham.” When he fires a distraught employee, he recites a little speech about how all the great world leaders and conquerors have sat “right where you are today.” When he does one of his side gigs as a motivational speaker, he begins each time by asking the audience members to imagine a backpack filled with all the “stuff” in their lives, stuff that ties them down. And you can imagine that he also has a standard set of pick-up lines to use in airport hotel bars.
It’s possible to read Up in the Air as a movie condemning the scripted, insincere nature of many of our human interactions. In some ways, it is. We’re clearly supposed to reject the approach of young Cornell grad Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who not only wants to pilot a program to fire employees via video-chat, but also constructs a flowchart to show her fellow firing professionals exactly what to say in a number of likely situations. Moreover, Bingham himself seems at his best in the one firing scene in which we do see him go off-script, as he looks at the résumé of a newly unemployed man and encourages the man to pursue his original, long-forsaken dream of being a chef. We nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s a better way to fire someone. There’s room for compassion.”
Is it really compassionate to provide that encouragement, though, if you have no stake in this person’s life and won’t be affected one way or another by his success or failure? Or is this scene, too, filled with meaningless words that merely serve to pacify people and oil the wheels of social interaction?
For me, Up in the Air doesn’t necessarily condemn scripted interaction, but rather serves to point out the true difficulty of meaning what we say. Meaning what we say involves commitment to other people—a whole lot of people, if we want to mean everything that we say. In a fallen world, real sincerity with everyone is impossible. I don’t even know my true feelings or motivations half the time, so how could I expect my words to express them?
I once had a voice teacher who insisted that the common exchange of “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks” was an insult to human creativity and sincerity. She insisted that, if she asked me how I was, she really wanted to know, and wouldn’t rest content with a mere, clichéd “fine.” The result was that, every time I saw her, I completely froze, not knowing what to say, fearing that the next words out of my mouth would be judged based on their emotive potential. Between a scripted exchange and forced expressiveness, I’ll take the script, thank you.
At least for the introverts among us, scripted interactions with strangers and acquaintances save us the energy we need to go off-script with those about whom we really care. For Ryan Bingham, though, at least initially, the script is desirable because it keeps him from getting entangled and bogged down with any messy human emotion. If Up in the Air were a romantic comedy, Ryan would learn his lesson, become vulnerable, and never again utter another platitude. However, as in life, it’s not that simple. When he finally does begin to allow other people into the “backpack” of his life, he discovers that it’s difficult to judge the sincerity of anyone else’s lines. You may be saying the same words to each other, but with completely different intent.
However, I think there are also words that aren’t necessarily made any less sincere by the frequency of their repetition. In Up in the Air, “interviews” with laid-off employees (who, as is now well-known, are played by real-life unemployed people who responded to director Jason Reitman’s ad) express thankfulness for their families and loved ones in hard times. A trite sentiment? Perhaps. But the characters seem to really mean it—or at least they’re willing themselves to mean it, which, in my book, counts for a lot. I don’t know if the real-life individuals ad-libbed these lines, as they did for at least some of the interview scenes, or if they were part of the screenplay. Either way, they’re arranged to create a sense of resolution to the film’s conflicts, a greater sense of resolution than is possible for any individual. (On a side note, something about the film’s ending left me unsatisfied aesthetically, perhaps because the structural resolution depends so heavily on these “common people” characters that the film seems largely uninterested in, except when they’re useful to move the plot along. I guess, in some ways, their presence registers as a less-than-sincere “How are you, recession-time Americans?” on the part of the film. But, as with Ryan Bingham’s lines, it’s the lack of commitment that rings false here, not the words themselves.)
Every Sunday, after the confession of sin, but before the Eucharist, my church practices the Passing of the Peace. The peace of Christ has been extended to us, so we offer it to each other, in the form of a handshake and the words, “May the peace of Christ be with you,” or “Peace of Christ,” or simply “Peace.” It’s not naturally my favorite part of the service. But every Sunday, I perform the same action, and say the same words—and pray that God will give me the grace to mean them.