Let me get right to it: the problem with Up In the Air is not that it doesn’t have the moments that make for a great & moving drama – it certainly does have them, in spades. There are tiny scenes taking place all over this thing where people say what they’re thinking… but not in so many words. So the potential for something mesmerizing was definitely there, but Reitman doesn’t know how to put the puzzle together exactly and so we’re left with something that seems… off. To keep with the puzzle analogy, Reitman maybe got some blue pieces together to form the sky and it makes sense, but they’re not in just the right place.
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham. Bingham is a member of the elite; he flies all over the country going to different companies in order to fire their employees. That’s his job. People hire him to fire people. But fire has such negative connotations, and what Bingham does takes a lot more finesse. He’s a salesman who sells you on the idea of starting your life over again. That’s got to be damn hard work, but he does it with an amazing skill (and Clooney’s natural charm probably doesn’t hurt either) that usually leaves people feeling, if not happy, then at least not so depressed. The scene with J.K. Simmons, for example, is extraordinary.
But Bingham likes being alone, which is why he loves his job. He considers the many airports he finds himself in to be more like his home than his real apartment. Or maybe it’s not about being alone, so much as it is about being quote-unquote “free”. He’s working toward getting 10 million frequent flyer miles in order to prove how dedicated he is to this lifestyle; but what will it prove? He has become a kind of nihilistic inspirational speaker, encouraging people at conferences to sever all their ties with the physical world – all their belongings, their family, their friends – in order to feel the weight removed from their shoulders. Of course, he says all this while wearing expensive business suits, jetting across the country, and enjoying the finer things that his lifestyle has to offer.
So that’s the major theme here, anyway. Bingham’s desire to be alone/free versus his perhaps unconscious desire to be with people, to help them. When a young businesswoman played by Anna Kendrick joins Bingham’s company and starts talking up a newer, more efficient way to fire people (using video-chat over the internet), Bingham is incredibly resentful. He claims that his aggressive resistance to the change is in response to the practical problems, e.g. what if the person being terminated just walks out of the room? In reality, though, it’s clear that the true reason he is uncomfortable is that he feels for the people who are being let go and doesn’t want to take away that personal connection.
Of course, most of this I am drawing as I write this review. It did not come across so clearly when I watched the movie. There are countless nods to the way that Bingham has cut himself off from intimate relationships: the scene from the trailer where a couple embrace after a flight while Clooney walks past them is a pretty good example. Am I reading too deeply into the film now when I say that Bingham’s deep-rooted need to be with people is the ultimate meaning here? Or did I give the movie too little credit to begin with?
When Natalie (Kendrick) joins Bingham on a trip across the country in order to get a feel for the realities of the job, the movie turns into an irksome comedy. It’s balanced somewhat by the arrival of Alex (Vera Farmiga, who is excellent here), a kindred business traveler who Ryan begins trying to meet up with whenever he gets a chance. Ebert, in his review, said that Alex is where Ryan is now, whereas Natalie is where Ryan used to be. I don’t know that that is what the movie was going for. My reading of the movie places much more emphasis on the fact that Ryan doesn’t follow up with any of the people that he has been asked to terminate. He speaks in front of people about the costs of maintaining relationships, but he rarely thinks of the benefits. Has he concluded that the costs are greater? Is his lifestyle wrong – or is it merely one that most people would be uncomfortable accepting?
I do think that Up In the Air was a very good film. I do kind of wish that these sorts of issues were addressed more clearly in the film, instead of being left on the fringes. The actors (especially Clooney and Farmiga) are great and make the entire thing a lot of fun, and as I said before, there are hints at a deeper meaning, as when Clooney fumbles through a bunch of motel key-cards and off-handedly remarks, “I should throw some of these away.” Yes, there are glimpses of something spectacular here… I can’t wait for the day when Reitman makes something painfully honest. The main characters in Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air all had knots in their stomachs that they couldn’t quite untie, so they mask it in their sales face. Reitman needs to crack them open, just a little bit more. He’s definitely on the right track, though.