Lost in the Movies: Up in the Air

Up in the Air

In one sense, Ryan Bingham is living the golden life. Soaring over the heartland, dipping in and out of fly-over country and hotter tourist spots, indulging in commitment-free trysts with women on the same ever-turning page as he: who could ask for anything more? True, the actual job which pays for this - firing strangers whose bosses are too cowardly to give the boot themselves - is not ideal. And the lifestyle doesn't allow much room for comfort or stability. But a guy like Bingham, who bears a remarkable resemblance to George Clooney, can coast by on his looks and his charm: he tells "clients" that they're Abraham Lincolns and Harry Trumans in the making, that they have to fail badly in order to succeed, and then he quietly hands them their packet and pushes them out the door (and away from the nearest window) while they mull this over. As for the security, the places to warm your feet by the fire at day's end, Bingham professes no interest - indeed, he's built an entire second career as a motivational speaker who advises stressed-out audiences to unload their metaphorical backpack and hit the skyways, real or otherwise.

Yes, it's the logical conclusion of the American Dream: to consume, to move restlessly onward, to live with style all while your feet barely touch the ground. Bingham suggests as much in the film's conclusion, over images of puffy, dusky clouds, his voiceover backed by the muffled sound of an airplane's engine roar, his ambivalent tone not quite mitigating the allure...
"Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and screaming kids. Their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wing-tip passing over."

Riding along with him on that wing-tip, for the moment anyway, is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She's an up-and-comer at Bingham's company, full of ideas about streamlining and digitizing the whole process. The film does not convince us that Natalie's colossally insensitive approach would ever actually be considered, nor that the layoffs themselves would take so calmly to their dismissal. (Don't get me wrong: they protest, they weep, some even lash out violently, but never to the extent that a good deal of writerly dialogue can't unfold in that bleak little room.) Nonetheless, the device of pairing Natalie and Bingham humanizes a movie which began life as a snazzy if very cold fish. Also thrown into the mix is Bingham's fellow traveller Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga); both agree that their "relationship," resumed and abandoned whenever their flight paths cross, will mean absolutely, positively, thankfully, nothing. ("Just think of me as you, but with a vagina," Goran suggests helpfully to a hesitant Bingham). We fully expect this to change, and it does, but in a fashion that is both surprising and dramatically satisfying though the logic may be a bit a slippery. Still, for the bulk of the movie, Bingham remains remarkably consistent in his attachment to this ephemeral journey with no destination, that perpetual motion which gives him the illusion of forward momentum.

Of course, Up in the Air is a Hollywood film, and not even a Hollywood-film-in-indie-drag as was director Jason Reitman's previous Juno. So it goes without saying that the movie must both flirt with Bingham's carefree lifestyle and ultimately bring him back to earth with a confirmation of domesticity's virtues. After all, the American Dream contains both wanderlust and the hope of settling down, and these two competing ideals must always be allowed for in works which appeal to our commonly-held yearnings. The movie accomplishes this with more subtlety than might be expected; furthermore, as the closing statement suggests, the character's edge is never completely shaved off. More problematic than this belated peon to home and hearth is Up in the Air's criticism of Bingham's glib grab-and-go consumer ethic. Reitman is an extremely mannered, slick director; paired with the always stylish Clooney the film's form is so sharp one begins to gag. The opening montage, slicing and dicing aerial views of America in rhythm to the music (a jaunty, poppy cover of "This Land is Your Land") is both tantalizing and frustrating. One doesn't know whether to resent the film for codifying and commodifying the rich American landscape, or to applaud it for so fully conveying and implicitly condemning its protagonist's superficial view of the land of promise he traverses.

Ultimately, suiting both title and character, Up in the Air is trapped between two attitudes - satirizing and embodying a shiny, flat, empty Americana. In this it resembles Steven Soderbergh's low-budget quickie The Girlfriend Experience, which used another metaphor - the high-price call girl - to expose glib, sleek consumerism on the cusp of global meltdown. Soderbergh's film went further both in embodying and subverting this mindset - as such it was at once more successful and less enjoyable than Up in the Air. There was no way out in Soderbergh's rather rancid social and aesthetic view, but while Up in the Air points to an exit, the options outside that door are not very encouraging. The film exists in a post-2008 world where layoffs and economic insecurity have become the new norm: Clooney is like a last holdout from the Clinton/Bush years trying to live a life of irresponsibility without consequences. What is not clear at film's end is to what extent his openness about this approach, and the eventual vulnerability this entails, is actually a more honest version of the way everyone else is living. This ambiguity is to the movie's credit.

Whether intentional or inevitably resultant from the film's dual commitments to social statement and entertainment industry ethos (I suspect it's a bit of both), this dodginess ultimately lends Up in the Air a complexity which it might otherwise lack. The warmth and strength of the performances (though Kendrick couldn't convincingly cry if her grandmother was run over by a tractor) also humanize the film. Good actors save Up in the Air from the glib pyrotechnics of its advertising techniques and the confused enclosement of the screenplay's world (in which a hotel tech-fest is made to stand for personal liberation, without the requisite irony). Aside from the stars, "real people" - non-actors from the working (or now non-working) world - are interviewed throughout the film. The device makes an uneven fit with the rest of Up in the Air: ultimately, this is not a film about American reality but about American dreams, and the way they brush up against reality, a reality which remains resolutely offscreen. In the end, that nervous glint in Bingham's eye exists not because he's afraid reality might come pouring in to his airless life, with all its requisite pain and discomfort. His greatest fear is that he'll continue to float above it all, up in the air where neither suffering nor real joy can reach him.

This review was originally published on the other Lost in the Movies site (and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow).


Just Another Film Buff said...

Movieman, This is a fantastic review. One of your very best that I've read. Your language is so good that it makes me want to say that I'll read anything you write, no matter if it's on cinema or not!

I did enjoy the film and its themes of life-and-nation-in-transit to an extent, but my problems with the film, not considering Reitman's ad-film aesthetics, were on a very basic level.

1. What kind of a person is Ryan Bingham? What causes his character to arc? Just loneliness? Somehow, the conviction with which Clooney plays the first half doesn't make it seem that way. Why does he amass those air miles? Was it for some kind of a pride? Is the film laughing with him or at him? As you sharply point out, like Bingham himself, the film is caught in the limbo between heaven and earth, up in the air.
2. The lesser said about the scene with the bridegroom, the better. Disney stuff.
3. I felt Reitman tried to hammer the economic situation down our throats. The photographs-across-America thing was quite contrived and Reitman makes it worse by having the couple explain it.
4. The twist about Alex also seemed like a forced attempt to break conventions. But the open ending, as you said, is to the film's credit. It's good that Reitman didn't do what Webb and co. did in the final scene of (500) Days.

I sort of felt this one was the Broken Flowers that failed.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, JAFB - you are always an enthusiastic supporter. Great points, by the way - I didn't have much to say about the bridegroom stuff, obviously. That was one area where the film didn't try to leave reality offscreen and kind of stumbled. The Alex twist was risky - why exactly would she accompany Clooney to a wedding if she thought it was all shits & giggles? - but if it was a bit of a contrivance I was nonetheless honestly surprised and liked the complexity it added. It not only makes her "free-spirited" life seem hypocritical, it makes the very domestic bliss that Clooney seeks out seem hypocritical as well. Still stranding him in limbo.

Still haven't seen Broken Flowers! It was on the 21st century list, but I think it may have been bumped off by now. I'll have to concoct another excuse to check out.

Anyway, glad someone caught this one - I think it got lost a bit in the shuffle with the Avatar review, but I actually like this piece better (at least right now). I'm trying to streamline my reviews somewhat, at least for this site, and feel this was a step in the right direction.

Troy Olson said...

Fantastic review here.

I actually liked the following line, which sums up my feelings on the film -- "Ultimately, suiting both title and character, Up in the Air is trapped between two attitudes - satirizing and embodying a shiny, flat, empty Americana." Although I found this to the film's detriment, you seem to be pointing to it as adding a layer of complexity to the proceedings. You lay some good points out there, but I think Reitman fails in adequately getting that nuance across on screen (whereas I think Clooney does a decent job of TRYING to get that nuance across).

And I'll second what JAFB mentioned, your writing is so clear and concise that it's a nice, easy read.

By the way, how are you finding keeping so many blogs and sites organized. I thought it was hard with maintaining four (but then I only really ever post at two of them).

MovieMan0283 said...

Troy, thanks.

I've been advised that the 3 blog thing is stretching myself too thin but honestly I feel it gives me more clarity, allowing me to focus on specific needs with different parameters. My main worry would be that readers get too confused, but hopefully the links at the tops of each page can remind them of my presence elsewhere. Rather than consolidate, I'd like to keep expanding, submitting some pieces to other sites, etc. We'll see - this year is the blogging/criticism/movie-writing year, we'll see what next year is.

Tony D'Ambra said...

A banal film that recycles cliche-after-cliche. It is not even funny or serious, just empty.

MovieMan0283 said...

Glad you liked it, Tony.

Seriously I see where you're coming from. I initially felt this way to a certain extent but warmed up to the movie as it progressed.

I think Jason Reitman is seriously hampered by his attachment to a flashy banal advertising aesthetic though.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I gave it a C at first but the more I think of it the less I like it. The one performance in the film that didn’t ring false to me was Farmiga’s Alex, and on that note I still think she was imperfect. There’s a misogynistic nature to the film which I didn’t note in my review but I’ve noticed later (due in part to other people highlighting it). The quickness with which Alex is supposed to turn into the villain is just a headscratcher for me, and even though Natalie is supposed to exist as a representation of the ambition of the women in this society her quickness to move for her boyfriend and her desire to settle down is just another wrench in the machine for me. So many are calling this a movie for the times, but I don’t get it. I’m not American, so that’s probably why it eludes me…and I keep wondering – in the economic climate the US is experiencing wouldn’t all those companies STOP spending money to hire people like Bingham?

My biggest issue with the film is that I don’t buy Bingham’s change in psychology. It doesn’t move me, and that has to do (for the most part) with Clooney. I’ve never found him to be sincere, and he’s at his worst here. Reiteman and company shouldn’t go off without punishment though because I just don’t buy all they’re trying to convince me of. I was not too fond of Juno and yet this felt even more spasmodic to me. Thank You For Smoking remains my favourite work of his. It’s the only film of his I genuinely liked.

MovieMan0283 said...

You raise very good points about Natalie and Alex. While I generally enjoyed the film, at least once it loosened up a bit following the airless first half-hour, I can't defend it very passionately. I agree with most of your points, though for some reason I accepted Clooney's change of heart where as most of the commentators did not. I'm not sure why this was.

This is not really a "movie for the times." It's a movie "for Hollywood" in these times. Its most insincere aspect is its floundering attempts to relate to the down-and-out characters when it's clear than everyone involved with this film's making just can't really get in those shoes (or if they could, they're drowned out by those who couldn't).

It's interesting too how much of a fuss was made over this film when it came out - how it was expected to sweep awards and then within several months it had proved not to have any legs.

And yeah, you're exactly right about this company's prospects going up in the downturn...I don't think so!

MovieMan0283 said...

I suppose I should offer some word in defense of the film, having written a mostly positive review. Here's what I'd say: I'm very, very compelled by the film's central hook. NOT that Bingham goes around firing people, which is the film's claim to relevancy but is treated rather glibly and, as you point out, is quite unbelievable. But rather that he's a man who lives his life in airplanes, airports, and hotels, the perpetual tourist, on eternal vacation. I find it a potent metaphor for American consumerism, both satirical and enticing, and like the way it plays not only on the alienating sterility of such places and such a lifestyle, which is what usually gets highlighted, but also its latent appeal. He lives on a perpetual high, but a very superficial one - the promise of the American Dream (the sleek terminal introducing you to a new place, the huge plane giving you mobility, the hotel locating you in a new spot to explore) but not the deliverance (the destinations one goes to from all those places).

Perhaps I'm willing to forgive some of the film's flaws because I'm so fascinated with this conceit. No doubt the firing-people angle is clever, but I might have liked the film even more if it dropped the attempt to be clever and just focused on the "up in the air" aspect.

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