Some part of me understands the world of Ryan Bingham, the jet-setting businessman portrayed in the movie Up in the Air by George Clooney. Ryan spends most of his life either in the air or inhabiting the cozy little world of frequent flier clubs. Many of us have opportunities for business travel. My half dozen or so trips a year more than scratch the itch to roam. In fact, it does not take many trips before one American city seems pretty much like all the others. Bingham spends all but 46 days a year on the road. He has mastered frequent flier clubs and is boldly working toward reaching American Airlines Ten Million Mile Frequent Flier Club, a very exclusive club with only six previous members. Hotel and airport life have become his home. It is only when he returns to his rarely used apartment in Omaha that he feels uncomfortable. He yearns for 35,000 feet, airport tarmac and the chance to add more frequent flier miles.
That part of his job is bliss. Less so is his actual work. He is hired to fire people. It’s what his company does and in a depressed economy, he has never had more work. He has firing down to a science and has become largely inured to the devastation he inflicts on people he does not know. Come 5 p.m. he tunes it all out. If this is the price he has to pay to live a detached life, he is happy to do so. In the process, he has nearly disconnected himself from any meaningful relationships. The sole exception is his sister Kara, who nags him to take pictures of places he visits as a present to her daughter and her fiancé who are about to get married.
Two karmic forces will rock Ryan’s serene world on the road. One is an attractive late thirty something woman Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who he meets in an airport bar and who spends nearly as much time on traveling as he does. They instantly click and work through their complex travel plans to find time to intersect, trade their war stories and make love. The other is a young woman who recently joined Ryan’s firm, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She has convinced the CEO that their business could be much more profitable if the firing process could be done remotely using videoconference technology. This causes a breach in Ryan’s comfy world on the road. So he takes Natalie on the road with him so she can learn for herself why her idea will not work.
Given the dehumanizing work that Ryan does, it is not surprising that nonstop business travel works so well for him. It allows him to detach from virtually all relationships. His family is whomever he meets on the road. In spite of himself, he finds himself increasingly drawn toward Alex. While he preaches the virtue of detached relationships, almost unwillingly he finds himself wanting to spend more time with Alex than their frantic schedules will allow. After all, how can he resist when Alex tells him, “Think of me as you with a vagina.”
Clooney is at the top of his form in this movie and glides through the subtleties of his role with what appears to be a reflexive adroitness. For a long time it is hard to know whether to admire or revile Ryan Bingham. He understands that life and relationships are complicated, and has no interest or patience for dealing with the many permutations that come with relationships like marriage. After a while, we understand that he is paying a price for living a detached life. When Alex arrives in his life, he slowly begins to understand that there is value in having a partner in life, although it takes until the very end of the movie for him to truly understand the karmic lesson life will dish out at him.
Up in the Air is something of a parable for our 21st century information age and the pitfalls that are inherent in the virtualized and ephemeral relationships many inhabit these days. Reputedly, this movie will be one of the Best Picture nominees. I personally do not think it merits the award, but the movie is clearly topical, interesting and engaging at least for those of us who do any amount of regular business travel. It is also at times funny and touching. If it has particular virtues, it is that it depends on acting rather than fancy special effects to deliver its value. I have yet to see Avatar, but I suspect this one will be the better movie.
3.3 on my four-point scale.