Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)

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Smooth maneuvers __ 8/10

Up in the AirRyan Bingham: How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life… you start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV… the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home… I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office… and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.

Natalie Keener: Can you stop condescending for one second or is that one of the principles of your bullshit philosophy?


Directed by Jason Reitman
Novel by Walter Kirn
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

George Clooney … Ryan Bingham
Vera Farmiga … Alex Goran
Anna Kendrick … Natalie Keener
Jason Bateman … Craig Gregory
Amy Morton … Kara Bingham
Melanie Lynskey … Julie Bingham
J.K. Simmons … Bob
Sam Elliott … Maynard Finch

You can tell by these quotes Up in the Air is an exceptionally clever movie… and these two above barely scratch the surface. I do think they convey the essentials: the worldview of the mature quintessential rolling stone, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, in another role he simply nails), as it encounters the next generation. And all the mind-numbing and relationship-numbing ways bequeathed to our ascending youth trying to thread the needle of ‘success’ via the Old-Paradigm-Global-Corporate-Menace.

That naive young representative happens to be a woman named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), and Natalie isn’t so naive. In fact, in the rarefied atmosphere of downsizing-assistance companies—Ryan’s firm specializes in firing people that their bosses “don’t have the balls to fire”—she’s a barracuda. Not only does she lack any apparent feeling for the victims of termination, she develops a system for canning them remotely… via a computer monitor over a network. No need to look the firee directly in the eye or worry about him or her pulling a pistol on you.

Well, Natalie’s new system is a big winner all the way around, at least for a while in the eyes of Ryan’s boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman). In fact it enables Gregory to let go of many of his traveling firers, but not Bingham, because, frankly, Bingham is a special breed. Ryan has become so disconnected from people he is acquiring a national reputation as a radical ‘life simplification’ consultant: “Throw all your relationships and belongings under the bus. Recognize them for what they are: neurotic traps.” He lives as he opines, with an apartment in Omaha as vacant as his aphorisms.

Speaking of vacuity, Ryan has a passion for one thing and one thing only: frequent flier miles. In fact he has a goal of a specific <very large> number of these miles so he can:

  • get lifetime executive status
  • get to meet the chief pilot, Maynard Finch
  • get his name put on the side of a plane

But, even though the benefits are nice, for Ryan the achievement of the number is an end in itself. “More men have walked on the moon,” he says, to Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow travel-privilege junkie he finds an obsession for, as well. This relationship between Ryan and Alex puts another big twist on the ideology of the film and shows another fault line growing in Ryan’s extreme, absurd, and childish—though often funloving— edifice of life.

There are many avenues of symbolism here: between youth and age, security and insecurity, sex and procreation, love and family and death. One wonders what the author was thinking by placing the Natalie character in Ryan’s world as opposed to a younger man. Thus you have another potential sexual interest—in a familiar trailer scene, Natalie, talking to a friend on her cellphone (which Ryan overhears), says, “No, I don’t think of him that way; he’s old.” Okay, it’is George Clooney, his character is rich and suave, and a lot of younger women go for older men (like him) that way all the time. Is the author saying these people are so into their mental machinations that routine lust is just another weakness?

Then there’s the job itself: letting all these people go. Many of them older, nearing retirement, lacking any means to find another job. Tears and anger abound. Ryan has seen it all, and we begin to see—especially through his “training” of Natalie—that he actually has a profound sensitivity to the suffering these poor victims endure.[1] He cares. Further, despite his protestations against marriage and family, we see him softening a lot in that area, too, via his relationship with Alex.

So that’s the whole picture. What will Ryan do? What will Natalie do?

Natalie’s character is also a psychological gold mine, and though she obviously has the skills to stay at the pinnacle of financial power, some vulnerabilities emerge that astound her. The film essentially walks the viewer through a referendum on personal philosophy. Unfortunately, I feel the alternatives presented are tinged with the fallacy of the excluded option. Why is it impossible to live a life of voluntary simplicity while at the same time embracing family, economic well being, knowledge, psychological independence, and so on? Too many false false choices to my mind.

But you can’t hold modern film to the most exalted standards of natural reasoning… or at least you can’t and expect to enjoy very many modern films. I give the author and the screenwriter a lot of credit for at least making a thought-provoking movie that is true to the times. [Frankly, what’s missing philosophically today, generally—in both art and political-economy—is the concept of liberty. That concept has been pilfered from most intellectuals’ toolchests at an early age; the best artists at least convey glimpses of it, if not life solutions based on it.]

SunFLOWerAnd we mustn’t neglect to mention the dialog. First rate: funny and insightful. The characters, with notable exceptions, are sympathetic and believable. There are several emotional dimensions to the principals, skillfully explored. To top it off, Up in the Air almost becomes a movie about ideas.

[1] Some interesting business sociology is built in to the film, too. Harsh realm. You wonder naturally why and how we humans got to this point, couldn’t we come up with a better more humane system, after all? Sure, communism and socialism are dead ends, but corporatism is worse in many ways… plus, with corporatism one is stuck with this endless bleating by its looter elites that they represent freedom and the voluntary marketplace.


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