Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.”
Up In The Air (2009) is a film that this writer has often returned to in the nearly ten years since its release. With its sharp commentary regarding the 2008 financial collapse, and the alienating effects of technology, some critics hailed it as the Film Of Our Times, and while history will have the last word on how well the film captured an era, what resonates for this viewer is the way it depicts the uncertainty of seeking connection, and the tenuous nature of identity.
Ryan Bingham (a dialed down George Clooney) is the ultimate loner; he makes a living flying across the U.S. conducting company layoffs, and firings. He is also known for delivering a motivational speech, titled “What’s In Your Backpack?” where he extols the virtues of a life free of attachments, personal or material. Spending 322 days out of the year on the road, his Nebraska apartment is threadbare and devoid of any personal flourishes. His greatest ambition is to reach ten million frequent flyer miles with American Airlines, making him the youngest (and 7th total) person to ever reach the milestone. Ryan is at home living out of a suitcase, without the burdens of an ordinary existence. His way of life becomes threatened, however, with the arrival of two very different women.
While traveling, Ryan crosses path with a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga) a fellow road-warrior whom Ryan begins a casual relationship with after bonding over their elite travel status. Alex is witty and charming, but also self-possessed in a way that appears to keep her somewhat out of reach. For a man like Ryan, it is a match made in heaven. Meanwhile, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is an ambitious new hire with big ideas about revolutionizing Ryan’s business. Her proposal relies on the use of telecommunications to conduct layoffs, thus eliminating the travel component (and Ryan’s way of life) entirely. While Natalie’s proposal will save the company a significant bundle of money, Ryan raises concerns regarding the impersonal nature of its delivery. It is an unusual career, and while Ryan can appear practical to the point of cold, he does not lack compassion, viewing his role not with relish, but with a sense of duty. “What is it you think we do here? … We are here to make limbo tolerable, to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread until the point where hope is dimly visible. And then stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.” After the two clash in front of the boss, Natalie is assigned to join him on the road for a time to learn the business.
It would take a special kind of actor to make a character like Bingham sympathetic, and Clooney is more than up to the task. As one of our premier stars, Clooney is the one of the most charming men this side of Cary Grant, but when he works with the right filmmaker, he is able to turn down the wattage and tap into something even more interesting. Reitman hired a number of non-actors (ordinary people who experienced real layoffs) to play the roles of those being fired, giving many of them pointed or cathartic moments to relive a terrible experience on their own terms. As Natalie, Kendrick proves she can play zealous and over-confident with aplomb, and as the depth of her character is revealed, she makes a perfect foil for Clooney’s weary but sure-footed Bingham. Vera Farmiga is the film’s secret MVP, however. As good as Clooney is, Farmiga matches him note for note in their scenes together, and the success of their pairing is what really sells Ryan’s arc.
During their time on the road, Natalie challenges Ryan’s philosophies regarding his lifestyle and questions whether he can be truly happy living life in such isolation. After she admits that she was dumped by the boy she followed to Nebraska via text (“It’s kind of like firing someone over the internet”) the two women in his life meet for the first time. Both Ryan and Alex console Natalie about the ways in which your plans–and expectations–for what your life will be change dramatically over time, particularly when it comes to finding the right partner. While Natalie views settling as equivalent to failure, Alex assures her, “By the time someone is right for you it won’t feel like settling and the only one to judge you will be the twenty three year old with the target on your back.” The day after the three of them crash a corporate event, tensions between Natalie and Ryan come to a head after she calls him out for his failure to give his relationship with Alex a chance at being something more than casual.
“Don’t you think there’s a future there? …How can you not think about that? How does it not even cross your mind that you might want a future with someone?”
“It’s simple. You know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?”
“Right. Well, I don’t.”
This argument seems to give way to a watershed moment in Ryan’s life; despite some bumps, Natalie’s pilot is approved, and both she and Ryan are called to return back to Nebraska, as all company travel has been grounded. Instead of following her home, however, Ryan hops on another plane to find Alex, and convinces her to join him at his sister’s upcoming wedding. He sells her on the idea by walking back from his entire philosophy up until this point: “I don’t want to be the lonely guy at the bar. I want a dance partner, I want a plus one, and if you could stomach it, I’d like it to be you.” So she returns home with him to Michigan, where they break into his old high-school and he shows her his old varsity photos, and the place where he used to sneak away to make out with girls. During the ceremony and through the reception, some of that hard exterior appears to melt away, as they laugh, and dance, and Ryan breaks down and lets her in. Clooney is so good in these scenes, effortlessly conveying multitudes without uttering a word; the way he looks at her immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever fallen in love. All at once, he seems filled with the sort of contentment he never knew he needed (or perhaps believed was possible).
By the time they part, Ryan almost seems to have made peace with settling down in one place, and even with the wave of technology that will revolutionize his career. He travels to Las Vegas to deliver his ‘What’s In Your Backpack?” speech to a large and elite convention. Before he can hit his stride, however, he walks off the stage, leaving what is left of his old self behind. He hops on a plane to Chicago, and rents a car. Anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy is familiar with the look of it, as he is nearly bursting with joy by the time he reaches Alex’s front door, and rings the bell. When she comes to the door, though, he sees two small children scampering up the stairs behind her, and the voice of her husband in the background. They each stare at the other in shock, until he backpedals away from the house, and she closes the door, distantly brushing aside the stranger at the door. Dejected, he receives a call from Alex the following day, and all of the dominoes fall into heartbreaking place, as she lays bare the truth of their connection.
“I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape, you’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.”
On his return flight to Omaha, he finally reaches the ten million mile landmark. One of the perks included in the achievement is meeting the company’s chief pilot, Maynard Finch (Sam Elliot). It is a moment that Ryan has imagined countless times, and all at once, it does not mean anything. When Finch asks Ryan where he is from, he admits, “I’m from here.” Ryan was always the titular man without a country, but it is only now that he seems truly lost. By the time he arrives home, what little is left of his old life has been swept away. One of the women fired by Ryan and Natalie during their tour committed suicide, and as a result, Natalie quits the company…via text message. The teleconference program is put on hold indefinitely, and Ryan is given an unprecedented reign of freedom. “We’re gonna let you sail, and sail. You send us a postcard if you ever get there.” Gifted with everything he might have wished for, it has arrived in time to be counted among all the things he no longer needs.
In many ways, this is a film about identity. Ryan and the women in his life grapple with ideas about how to live life right, attempting to reconcile their desires as individuals with the roles that society has assigned to them, whether personal or professional (the same can be said for the people who are losing their jobs, and thus, an enormous part of their identity). By the end of the film, Natalie remains young, if a bit less idealistic, but with a firmer sense of the woman she will continue to become. There is still time for her to find her way before she will follow in Alex’s footsteps, compartmentalizing her life into responsibility vs escape pod, never truly settling down or feeling satisfied by one or the other, but unable to leave either entirely behind. It is Ryan, though, who is most profoundly changed. Ryan has had his beliefs tested, seemingly for the first time, and found they came up short. In the final frame, Ryan arrives at the airport, and stands in front of a large row of destination boards. Though he appears directionless, the world is open to the possibility of something new. As he lets go of his luggage, it is clear that Ryan will return to the air, searching. For this writer, it is a moment that remains both profoundly terrifying, as well as life-affirming. It is a big world, and where life takes you could be almost anywhere.