Publisher’s Note: The following is not a review of Up in the Air, it’s a spoiler-heavy discussion. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, please see Drew’s review.
Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air was my favorite movie of 2009. For me, it resonated louder than any movie I’ve seen in years. The quiet devastation of the film has lingered with me for months, and re-watching UitA doesn’t exorcise that feeling, it only heightens it. Movie geeks like to discuss those elusive perfect movies; perfectly acted, perfectly scripted, perfectly executed. Flawless. I’d like to posit that Up in the Air is one of those movies. Even if you didn’t like it, even if it didn’t speak to you thematically, and even if you didn’t care for the characters, I’m convinced that Reitman accomplished exactly what he set out to do, making Up in the Air one of those rare faultlessly executed films.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to travel the country and deliver the bad news to downsized employees. He fires people for a living. He’s good at it, too, providing terminated employees a small dose of hope and a shred of dignity at the most fragile points of their lives: “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s *because* they sat there that they were able to do it.”
Over the course of his career, Bingham’s made the air his home; he’s traveled 10 million miles. He spends 46 weeks of the year flying from city to city; living out of suitcases; in and out of hotels, crashing convention center parties. “All the things that most people hate about traveling — the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi — are warm reminders that I’m home.” He loves his job. He loves the independence of it. He loves the lifestyle. And he loves the identity it affords him. He even speaks about it periodically on the lecture circuit, delivering his “backpack” philosophy about the advantages of being tied down to nothing and no one.
“Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other. To live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”
Enter Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener, a 23-year-old Cornell ingenue, who has come up with a way to revolutionize the downsizing industry: Instead of traveling around the country to fire people face to face, she’s developed a system to do it on video chat, over the Internet, an idea that threatens Bingham’s very lifestyle. But before they unveil the new system, Natalie has to travel the country with Ryan to learn about what he does. Along the way, Bingham enters a casual sexual relationship with another frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga), which develops into an increasingly romantic endeavor, culminating at his little sister’s wedding, where Ryan realizes that having someone to share his life with might not be so bad. “If you think about it,” he says, “your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life… were you alone? Life’s better with company.”
The casting is sublime: Reitman finds likable, attractive, impeccable actors, and lights the entire movie brightly, giving us the impression that it’s a lightweight dramedy, luring us in before he rips the carpet out from beneath us. But you don’t even realize that carpet is gone until you’ve left the theater, trying to figure out how Up in the Air quietly, like an invisible thief in a romantic comedy, ripped out a hole in your soul.
How did they do it? Structurally, I can’t think of a more perfect movie than Up in the Air. Reitman and Sheldon Turner, using Walter Kirn’s novel as source material, sets the narrative up with Rube Goldberg perfection, and then knocks everything down, playing upon our preexisting notions of how a romantic comedy should work and then doing the opposite. There aren’t a lot of movies that explore our careers, how our identity is wrapped up in them, and how we use them to fill the vacant spaces in our lives. Cameron Crowe’s done it twice. In Singles, that was the answer to Campbell Scott’s romantic predicament: He sought solace in his work, but the lack thereof only compounded his romantic misery, which was eventually resolved when his love interest returned to him (“I was nowhere near your neighborhood.”).
Likewise, Jerry Maguire was about Maguire’s relationship with his job, and how he, too, came to the realization that that “life’s better with company.” But, Up in the Air is Jerry Maguire in the negative. Up in the Air is Jerry Maguire if he’d never had the “You had me at hello” speech; if he’d just quietly gone back to his job and continued, alone, for the rest of his meaningless existence. It wouldn’t have made for a very romantic movie, but Up in the Air proves the same point in the inverse, and in doing so, doubles the impact.
There are three moments in Up in the Air where Reitman could’ve taken the easy romantic comedy out, but in not giving us that happy ending, increases the forcefulness of his point. I absolutely marvel at those three moments. The first is the big speech in Las Vegas, following his sister’s wedding. We’ve seen enough movies to be conditioned as to what to expect: Ryan Bingham would crumple up his notes and give a big impassioned speech about how meaningless his philosophy was all along, how it was a facade, a convenient philosophy to justify his existence, and how people aren’t meant to be alone at all. “We are swans!” he would exclaim. Maybe Vera Farmiga’s Alex would even be in the audience to witness it, setting up a big romantic kiss in the aisle of the convention center.
Instead, he stops, mid-speech, and he walks out.
This is where the big Jerry Maguire moment was supposed to happen. Bingham was supposed jump a plane, fly to Chicago, run to Alex’s house, force himself inside the door, and cry, “I love you! You complete me!”
Instead, he discovers that Alex is married. With children. And that Ryan is “an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.” That’s all he ever was to Alex: A parenthesis.
The third moment comes in the end. Early on in the movie, in an exchange with Natalie about the number of frequent flyer miles that Ryan has, Natalie tells him that if she had that many miles, she’d walk into an airport, look up on the big board, pick any random city, and just go. We know that moment in the movie. We identify it. It’s an obvious callback. And it’s exactly how we expect the movie will end, with Ryan jetting off to some exotic location, probably with Alex. Instead, in the penultimate scene, Ryan arrives in front of that big board, and he looks at all the cities, and we expect him simply to pick one and fly off into the sunset. But he doesn’t (arguably — there’s a small amount of ambiguity here). He gets on the plane he’s supposed to take, and goes back to what he does: Traveling interminably from city to city to fire people. He’s spit back into his old life an empty shell.
Ryan Bingham doesn’t get a happy ending. He’s returned to the exact same state he was in at the beginning of the film. But now he recognizes what Natalie saw all along: that his philosophy is bullshit, a realization Reitman brings home when Bingham crosses the 10 million mile mark and concludes how insignificant that executive status really is. Indeed, instead of filling that backpack and sending Ryan Bingham off to the suburbs and the ticky-tacky houses and the 2.2 kids, Jason Reitman gives him back his independence and his frequent flyer status. The difference in the end, of course, is that now the emptiness of that back-pack is what’s weighing him down.
Emptiness has never felt so heavy.
“Hey, I don’t have all the answers,” Dicky Fox says in the closing scene of Jerry Maguire. “In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.” Compare that spirited, crowd-pleasing closing with Ryan Bingham’s final line of Up in the Air: “The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.”
The contrast is devastating.
The point of Up in the Air, of course, is that culturally, we put too much emphasis on our jobs. We allow them to define who we are. We put countless hours and mountains of effort into our employment, failing to realize the fragile status. One downswing in the economy or a tiny misstep in the office, and our careers — and in many cases, our very identities — can be stripped away from us. That’s why relationships are so valuable. We shouldn’t let our careers or the labels on our desk placards define us, we should let the ones we love and who love us define who we are. We may not always have a job to wake up to in the morning, but if we’re lucky, we’ll have someone to wake up next to. Just ask yourself this, at the end of the day: What’s the better epitaph, “Brilliant accountant” or “Loving husband?”