Directed by Jason Reitman
Up in the Air is a feel good movie in part about the recession. One of the first images we see onscreen is of people fired, expressing dismay, fear, anger and the like in regards to being let go. Closing images will revisit many of those same people addressing how they found strength from their loved ones to get through their termination and subsequent unemployment. These are and were real people who were laid off, and they give a face to those who suffered during the recession, helping us empathize with their plight before meeting our main character, a man who despite his charisma could care less about them.
He is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), and he spends 340 days of each year on the road, traveling from place to place to fire people for a living. He is good at his job, very good, but it’s not long into this movie before his charm is undercut by his selfishness, even if it is entertaining. He’s a character we admire but of whom we should be weary.
First off, he introduces himself to us in snappy voiceover dialogue. He’s a salesman of sorts, he dreams of speaking at a notable Las Vegas conference, and he’s selling his philosophy to us, the audience. He knows when to wink, when to pause for laughter and when to slow down to emphasize a particular point. He sells a weird kind of dream.
Later in the story he will pitch the same dream to multiple people. One of them, Alex (Vera Farmiga), entertains his fantastical philosophy while another, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), refuses to let him go unchallenged.
Ryan loves his life and his job, and he meets Alex out on the road. They are both enamored with the same “cheap” thrills, customer loyalty programs and air travel routines. They meet in their element, at a hotel bar, immediately spark something and are soon planning meet ups all around the country, be it in south Florida, Las Vegas or wherever.
Soon after he is introduced to Natalie, his company’s most recent hire. She is young and full of ideas. Her youth will be played for idealism as well as naivety, a contrast with Ryan’s stubborn but well-tested methods, producing an understandable conflict that works because it refuses to indict or celebrate either one of them. They are both flawed and skillful in their own ways, with life philosophies that are alternately bred into them by experience, pain and the dreams which they themselves have chosen to buy into.
Natalie wants to introduce a system of remote terminations, so that all the ‘road warriors’ can come home and travel costs will be drastically reduced. Though a good idea in theory, it is potentially cold and prioritizes quantity over quality. Of course Ryan’s objection has more to do with himself, with how this threatens his way of life.
It’s an interesting dynamic because his job is cold and yet he refuses to see it as such. He considers it an art form, a service to help usher people into their next phase of life. At the same time, he doesn’t really. He can talk the talk, but he thinks only of himself.
Ryan and Natalie will be pushed out on the road together, so that he can show her the ropes and they can slowly try to implement the automated system. Of course they irritate each other and then slowly bond. They each gain and lose something and have their points of view challenged. It’s by the books, but it’s charming and in its own stylized way, true to life.
There’s a lot here similar to what you’d find in a film noir. Ryan Bingham is a noir hero, making his living in what others would consider dishonest ways. Even Alex turns into a bit of a femme fatale character, at least as seen through Ryan’s eyes (although such a label is probably unfair to the character, the effect she has on his life is similar to in a noir).
He is a jaded protagonist who survives thanks to ego and habit, the things you can cultivate and construct over time but which often need consistent reevaluations. By the end of the film he will give into the challenges his worldview faces, returning to something like a wide-eyed child. He was so deadset in his ways and yet an attractive woman is all it takes to crumble his previously cemented life philosophy.
In the end he doesn’t get his way and in fact returns to what he would’ve wanted at the beginning. It’s an ending which removes him from our earthly ecosystem and suggests that he is more like an angel from above, looking down over the earth. At first he willfully kept himself apart from life and its people, and now he returns to the clouds because he tried and failed to land. He takes a few steps to give himself to other people, not just Alex but so too friends and family. He stops living for himself and yet finds himself in the same position as before.
There’s something myth-making about all this. Ryan is himself a myth, I suppose even at the start. He tells us who he is like a man describing his own legend. He’s writing it down and passing it to the audience as well as to every character he meets. He’s performing as Ryan Bingham, mostly because every conversation is an opportunity to sell someone on something. He has forgotten how to be a person.
So then he dabbles in humanity, it rejects him, and whether because he thinks he deserves to be banished or because he’s too scared to try again, he returns to the air. It suits him, but I’m also not so sure. It suited who he was, and now it’s a metaphorical death. That final shot of the clouds is the type of image which accompanies a departure. Ryan has departed and his exit is meant to feel sacrificial. Two of the final steps he takes are to transfer most or all of his ten million miles to his sister and her new husband so they can finally afford a honeymoon and to write Natalie a letter of recommendation for her next job.
Him transferring his miles and him going out of his way to help someone else get hired is akin to someone donating an arm and a leg. He is emptying his own bag… oh sh*t that’s what it is. He’s emptying his own bag so he can figure out what to put back in (mirroring his “backpack” speech teased throughout the story and what he says about it to Alex in a moment of intimacy halfway through the film).
Up Next: The Farewell (2019), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Stuber (2019)