UP in the air you may meet Ryan Bingham, an ancient mariner of sorts who has, over the years (at least in Walter Kirn’s novel, where he originated) encountered just about everyone who has flown business class across the spokes and hubs of this great land. Ryan is capitalism with a handsome face: efficient, optimistic, confident without undue arrogance. He’s a winner, and he belongs to a winners’ club that anyone with sufficient grit or good fortune can join. You’ve met some of the other club members, and when you run into the new, gray-haired George Clooney version of Ryan in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” you may find yourself wondering: Does he know Jerry Maguire?
Remember Jerry Maguire? I don’t mean the memorable catchphrases — “You had me at hello,” “You complete me,” “Show me the money” — though there is something to be said for a movie about business that crystallizes its themes so effortlessly in aphorisms. I’m thinking of the man himself, perfectly embodied by Tom Cruise at a point in his career close enough to “Risky Business” and “Top Gun” that some of his bratty winner’s vigor was still intact, but far enough from Oprah’s couch that the energy was not yet off-putting. In 1996 Jerry was a person very much of his moment: post-Cold War, pre-9/11, mid-boom. He was also, for his moment, the incarnation of a venerable American ideal.
Not the mythical self-made man — surely Jerry had risen from the comfortable middle of the socioeconomic heap — but rather a man in the process of unmaking and remaking himself. In the course of Cameron Crowe’s movie, the professional, personal and romantic aspects of Jerry’s life are all dismantled and put back together again, sometimes by accident, sometimes by his agency, leaving him more or less where he started and yet at the same time completely transformed. He starts out in the grip of a vision, suddenly gifted with the ability to see everything wrong with his field (he’s an agent representing professional athletes) and able to put his insights into prose. The result is a manifesto, a mission statement that earns him the apparent admiration of his colleagues and costs him his job.
What makes “Jerry Maguire” so engrossing, so full of surprises even on repeat viewings, is the odd, syncopated rhythm of triumph and loss that animates Jerry’s story. He chooses to take his humiliation as vindication, and sets off to start his own company with a single client (Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Rod Tidwell) and a lone employee (Renée Zellweger’s Dorothy Boyd), who in due course becomes his wife. And so, before the movie has reached its midway point, he has it all. But of course he has it all wrong. The outward trappings of fulfillment are not yet matched by his inner condition, and so he must undergo further realignment, to become a better friend, a better husband, a better agent and a better man.
A representative man. Jerry is a full-blooded avatar of the Protestant-Emersonian tradition that continues to flourish, often unrecognized, in American civic culture, and in our popular art as well. He believes, above all — and the movie all but insists — that it is possible for apparently discrepant values and identities to be perfectly congruent. Decency, wealth, love, fame: these are not contradictory but rather mutually reinforcing expressions of that secular grace known as happiness. We are innately entitled to pursue it, and a broad highway and a good car will only speed the capture.
If Jerry’s ambition seems for a while to undermine his ability to sustain his connections with his wife and best friend, that is not because of any inherently destabilizing imbalance between love and work. It is because he has not yet learned to harmonize those things.
The way he learns is through adversity, a habit that makes him a walking illustration not only of management-philosophy boilerplate, but also of the doctrine of the fortunate fall, whereby sin is understood as beneficial because it makes redemption possible. “Jerry Maguire” is a success story made up of episodes of failure. It works like a charm, and partakes of a very old magic. Surely Jerry is, in his way, a descendant of George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who has to fail and falter so many times on his way to a Christmas apotheosis. Love and work, civic duty, family responsibility and selfish ambition have to pull him apart in every direction before he can pull himself together into the person he was always meant to be: solid citizen and husband, doting father and prosperous businessman. George’s repeated losses make that triumph sweeter and, in the durable logic of this kind of fairy tale, all the more real.
Turning setbacks into opportunities is part of the gospel that Ryan Bingham preaches too, but here it is more snake oil than healing elixir. This is partly a difference in vocation: Jerry’s job is to advance the careers of others; Ryan’s is to end them. He is a soft-voiced angel of professional death, employed by a consulting firm that companies hire to do the dirty work of downsizing.
In this he is, as much as Jerry Maguire or George Bailey, a man of his time. George’s version of capitalism was rooted in place and community, prudent investment and steady growth. Jerry’s end-of-the-century American dream is predicated on expansion, like bread dough (or, as the case may be, a soap bubble), and on a happy principle of reciprocal benefit. The better Rod plays, the richer Jerry can make him, which in turn makes Jerry more successful, and thus free to focus his energies on the nonmaterial things that really matter. But Ryan, in the movie version of “Up in the Air,” lives in a land of subtraction and brutal zero-sum accounting. The worse things are for his clients — his victims, really — the better they are for him and his bosses.
In Mr. Kirn’s novel this economy is somewhat abstract, and the layoffs Ryan perpetrates are more signs of a complicated reshuffling of the business world than symptoms of potential collapse. That is because the literary Ryan Bingham is, more or less, a contemporary of Jerry Maguire. (George Clooney, by the way, is just a year older than Tom Cruise.) Published in 2001, “Up in the Air” is a late, half-comic expression of the anxieties of the boom years, its fine satirical observations tending toward (and finally upended by) a helter-skelter conclusion that Mr. Reitman has wisely jettisoned. But the novel’s shortcomings are in their own way premonitory. The book, like Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections,” published the same year, forces itself to an overblown conclusion because the logic of narrative, and perhaps also of history, seemed to demand a calamity.
The movie “Up in the Air,” floating in the same ether of departure lounges and airport hotels as the book — familiar territory for Jerry Maguire, though back then there was no Wi-Fi or Department of Homeland Security — suggests that we still don’t know what hit us. The film’s most subtle and radical effect is the way it takes up its themes of alienation and self-estrangement in a familiar, almost comforting way and then destroys that sense of comfort.
The story of Ryan Bingham, we assume, will be the tale of a man who discovers the flaws in his happiness and sets out to correct them, so that he can become a better version of the person he already is. We know, before he does, that his freedom is laced with loneliness, and that he will discover, beneath his restlessness, an urge to settle down. There will be some turbulence, but when the gravitational pull of forces of family and commitment assert themselves, surely an easy landing is in store.
In the meantime Ryan’s essential gravity reveals itself through his relationship, at once rivalrous and tutelary, with a younger colleague who represents a scary new way of doing business. This character, wonderfully played by Anna Kendrick, is also someone we might recognize. She is a version of the callow hotshot played by Topher Grace in Chris and Paul Weitz’s lovely and underrated “In Good Company,” and, as such, a fixture in movies about American business. The kid comes in full of shiny new ideas that the old-timer (Dennis Quaid in “Company”) scoffs at partly because he’s threatened, and the kid views the old ways as so much sentimental folklore. By the end each has learned something, and the lifeblood of capitalism is renewed with minimal bloodshed.
“Up in the Air” does not entirely give up on that story, or on the ideal of perfect happiness represented by “Jerry Maguire.” But the title betrays a hint of disquiet that, by the end, has grown into something more. Not an intimation of catastrophe, exactly, but a tremor that is more troubling for being less dramatic. When Ryan dispenses his cold comfort to the people he lays off — telling them that, if they stick to the project of self-making and look for silver linings in the clouds, everything will work out — he half-believes his own patter, as any good salesman would. So do we, even if we know better.
Watching him, you can’t help but believe Ryan will win in the end, that the singular happiness he has postponed and pursued his whole life will catch up with him in the end. Surely, if anyone can have it all, it’s this guy. Come on, he’s George Clooney!
But what if he can’t? If nothing — or no one — will complete him? And what about the rest of us, stuck on the ground or braced for a hard landing? Remember that song from “Jerry Maguire?” It was called “Free Falling.”