Bingham considers his low emotional metabolism an achievement, and in motivational speeches he urges his audiences to cultivate it: "Your relationships are the heaviest components of your life. ... The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We're sharks."
The movie begins and ends with everyday people talking to the camera, making remarkably sensitive statements about the trauma of being declared dispensable. Some, however, recall that the consequences included being reminded that things they retained, such as their human connections, are truly indispensable.
The opening soundtrack is a weird version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." This hymn to Depression-era radicalism is catnip for people eager to tickle a political manifesto from any movie that has a contemporary social setting.
But although "Up in the Air" may look like a meditation on the Great Recession -- "The Grapes of Wrath" for a service economy -- it is based on a novel published in 2001, during the mildest recession since the Depression, and written before that.
You must remember this: In 2006, the last full year before this downturn, when the economy grew 2.7 percent and the unemployment rate was just 4.6 percent, 3.3 million people lost their jobs to the normal churning of a dynamic economy. This "creative destruction" has human costs, but no longer is optional. America has an aging population, and has chosen to have a welfare state that siphons increasing amounts of wealth from the economy to give to the elderly. Having willed this end, America must will the means to it -- sometimes severe economic efficiency to generate revenues to finance the entitlement culture. So "Up in the Air" is sobering entertainment for a nation contemplating a giant addition to the entitlement menu.
In addition to being perhaps the best American movie of 2009, "Up in the Air" is two mature themes subtly braided and nuanced for grown-ups. One is the sometimes shattering sense of failure, desperation and worthlessness that overwhelms middle-aged people who lose their livelihoods. The other is that such shocks can be reminders that there is more to life than livelihoods.
But not for Bingham. He is, in his fashion, content. In E.M. Forster's novel "Howards End," Margaret famously exhorted, "Only connect!" Bingham would rather not.