Up in the Air

“Up in the Air,” directed by Jason Reitman. Cold Spring Pictures, 2009, 109 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
Two films reviewed this month use a backpack as a metaphor for what really matters in life. In “The Road” a father and son make their way across post-apocalyptic America carrying their survival equipment and a few sentimental items in a backpack; in “Up in the Air,” a happily single man encourages people to empty their imaginary backpacks and live life unencumbered. It’s the difference between life seen as substance and sustenance and life seen as weightlessness.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the protagonist-antagonist of “Up in the Air,” is a man with an unusual occupation: he gives people the news that they have been fired. Only he doesn’t use the words “fired” or “let go”; he tells them simply, “Your job is no longer available.” He is hired by companies across America for the anonymity he provides– it’s easier to fire people if you don’t know their background, haven’t met their children, haven’t swapped stories at the water cooler. It’s also safer; he’s out the door and on the next plane before the firee has a chance to go berserk and seek revenge.
Bingham remains upbeat and cheerful throughout the process, telling people, “This is the day you begin planning your future.” And he seems to mean it. To him, working 9 to 5 in the same office and returning to the same house inhabited by the same family day after day would be a nightmare. He sets these people free.
When he isn’t ushering individuals toward their new futures, Bingham gives speeches at motivational seminars. His topic: “What’s in your backpack?” It’s the age-old Thoreauvian question: how much of our lives do we spend supporting our “stuff”? Bingham encourages his audiences to imagine putting all their stuff into a pack and then lugging it around on their backs. He also tells them to imagine putting all the people in their lives into the backpack–family, friends, spouse, children, coworkers. Then he tells them to imagine lightening the load by eliminating all their stuff, and all those people. “What would you keep?” he asks. “Photographs? Keep memories instead.”
Bingham practices what he preaches. He travels 318 days a year, “leaving 47 miserable days at home,” he reports sarcastically. His own apartment, bereft of any ornamentation or personal memorabilia, stands in stark white contrast to the welcoming comfort of his hotel digs, with their richly colored wallpapers, thick bedspreads, gourmet dining rooms, per diem charge accounts, and warm cheerful greetings (triggered, he admits, by his VIP frequent traveler card). He lives “up in the air,” both physically and metaphorically.
The film opens with a tightly edited montage of a smiling Bingham making his way through an airport–a twirl of the roller bag, off go the shoes, up goes the ticket, poof goes the security machine, on go the shoes, bim, bam boom and he’s sipping a cocktail in his upgraded business class seat. Jaunty music establishes the rhythm, ritual, and routine of air travel in a way that suggests the comfort rather than the tedium of familiarity. This is a man who loves his job. He loves the travel, loves his frequent traveler cards, loves the VIP lines. He loves picking up women at airport bars and not having to call them again. In short, he has found a way to empty his backpack and simplify his life.
But, like the title of another film that opened at the same time as “Up in the Air,” Bingham soon learns that “it’s complicated.” Two women come into his life, setting the stage for self-reflection and a reassessment of his values. One is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman Bingham meets in an airport bar. She also travels almost daily, carries dozens of fancy VIP cards, and wants quick, easy sex with no strings attached. In short, as she tells Bingham crudely, “I’m you, with a vagina.” They share travel stories, brag about their sexcapades, and hook up in airport hotels. Before long, just as you’d expect in a film of this genre, Bingham isn’t just hooking up; he’s hooked.
Meanwhile, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is a young college grad who has been hired by Bingham’s boss (Jason Bateman) with a plan to revolutionize the business. She wants them to forego travel costs and face to face terminations, and modernize the process through email interface– sort of like flying the friendly Skype rather than flying the friendly skies. Not only is Bingham’s comfortable world up in the air about to be eliminated; he is assigned to take Natalie with him to show her the business so she can fine-tune her new electronic format.
Natalie is having romantic problems with her boyfriend, problems she discusses at length with Alex and Bingham in–where else?–a hotel lounge. Add to this a sister who is getting married and another sister who is getting divorced, and the film offers plenty of opportunities for Bingham to discuss the relative merits or demerits of longterm relationships.
“Up in the Air” rises above (no pun intended) the typical romantic comedy genre with its boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl-after-a-good-lesson formula. Today, marriage is no longer the default position, and children can be the biggest burden in the backpack. Discussions about the value of longterm relationships and the viability of marriage make this film very contemporary.
“What’s the point?” Bingham asks the optimistic Natalie when she tries to explain her desire for marriage and children. “We’re all on the way to death. All that matters is what you do along the way.” He genuinely believes that his love ‘em and leave ‘em life is more satisfying than being tied down to the same woman, same children, same four walls and a mortgage. Another character counters his argument with this challenge: “Think of the best memories you have–are you alone in them?” He makes a solid point: “Life is better with company.”
Another theme that makes this film distinctly contemporary is the business of letting people go. Jason Reitman began writing this screenplay in 2002 but became sidetracked with “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) and “Juno” (2007). It was a fortunate delay, since “Up in the Air” is much more timely now, when unemployment figures stand in double digits, than it would have been in 2002, when the economy was booming. The people who are seen being fired in the film are not actors, but ordinary people who were recently terminated from their jobs. Reitman advertised in St. Louis and Detroit, posing as a documentarian making a film about the effects of the recession. These volunteers were told to imagine the camera as the person who gave them the news that they were fired, and to say what they wish they had said. The results are heartfelt, eloquent, and completely unscripted. Their spontaneous candor adds a great deal to the film.
As the movie ends, Bingham is still up in the air, literally and figuratively. He’s in a plane, flying to his next termination assignment. His future is also up in the air–will he change? Or is it too late? Will he continue to carry an empty backpack the rest of his life?
I have a friend who was very much like the Ryan Bingham character: handsome, debonair, charming, and rich. He traveled the world looking for investment opportunities and attracting women the way a picnic attracts bees. Now he’s close to 70. He’s still rich, and he still travels. But his face is sagging, his hair is almost gone, and his stomach no longer resembles a washboard. Young sexy women are no longer falling all over him when he walks through an airport lounge. He never wanted to be bogged down with a wife and children or social obligations. Now he’s simply alone. I wonder if he wishes there was a little more heft to his backpack.

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