What kind of a person chooses to spend their life being disconnected from things, from people, from places? What kind of a person excels at breaking bad news to total strangers, knowing how to perfectly land a blow that would alter the course of their lives? What kind of a person sets a goal not of closeness but of distance—-miles flown, to be exact?
It’s hard to imagine what sort of person this would be. Hard to imagine, that is, until we meet Ryan Bingham, in the form of George Clooney, in director Jason Reitman’s new film Up in the Air. Reitman’s last film, Juno, was a refreshing exhibit of charming characters, witty dialogue and a heartfelt story that won you with its warmth and candor. Up in the Air is quite another story. There isn’t much warmth here.
Up in the Air is a modern-day parable of life in the technology age. If Crash was a movie about what happens when we are forced to come together, Up in the Air is a film about what happens when we choose to stay apart. Distance is the essential ingredient in Ryan’s life, and he is not happy unless he has it, especially between himself and the ground. He is happiest when he is up in the air, flying, where his world is controlled and familiar—and anonymous. The only connection Ryan wants to make is to his next plane. He lives for the rhythm of the routine of his carefully constructed life as a traveling businessman. His life is order and precision and of racking up corporate points and airline miles. In a very distilled and metaphoric way, he is about the kill. So much so that he makes his living firing people. And he is very good at it. He is a self-proclaimed shark, a lone wolf, beholden to nobody and nothing except his own goals and ambitions.
It’s hard to imagine George Clooney playing such a character, because, from that description, your mind would, seemingly, sooner go to Gordon Gekko than to Dr. Doug Ross (Clooney’s fame-making character from ER), but it is not as big a stretch as you would imagine. This is the part Clooney was born to play. You know that really good looking guy you always wanted to talk to who was always dressed really well, seemed really charming and confident and funny, had a great smile, but was always the first one out of the room? Clooney just feels like the guy we’re never meant to get close to and he’s finally playing a guy who doesn’t want anyone to get close to him. It’s a perfect fit. And he wears it well.
But what makes this film such a winding contradiction is the striking juxtaposition between the message and the messenger. Up in the Air, is, at its core, a modern tragedy. It is a snapshot of the times we are living in, where average, hardworking people are losing their jobs in the midst of an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, all framed by the happy-go-lucky existence of a roving loner—the cockroach who could survive a nuclear fallout, happy to breathe in stale air at 30,000 feet and not be affected by the devastation he leaves behind. Ryan is immune to suffering because he doles it out by the book—antiseptic, crisp and clean. He studies people, knows their emotions, their reactions, their responses, in order to be prepared for any possible scenario and head off any potential crisis. He is a student of the real world, just not a practitioner of it. He lives alone, in his carefully crafted cocoon of isolation—hotel rooms and airline cabins are his homes, flight attendants and bartenders his best friends.
So when our anti-hero is faced with his greatest fear—being grounded—he must rally to save himself, no matter what it takes. This means mentoring a young upstart businesswoman who has ambitions of her own, showing her the ropes and proving that he is still relevant in an increasingly impersonal corporate world where teleconferencing is threatening to replace the in-person visit. The irony is not lost—our protagonist, who has no personal relationships and makes a living destroying people’s lives, must now prove that human interaction is still essential and irreplaceable. But all still in the name of self-preservation.
When Ryan is forced to share his space with Natalie, his young colleague, played with great enthusiasm by Anna Kendrick, he adapts well and takes her under his wing. Ryan is not, after all, a misanthrope, he merely prefers to live in his own space, at his own pace, and that just happens to not include anyone else. Relationships, as he confidently elaborates in speeches to bored conventioneers, only serve to weigh you down.
Yet, when he meets and hooks up with a female version of himself, the exact mirror image of his own ambitious, shark-like, mile-seeking constant traveler, played by Vera Farmiga, it’s self-love at first sight. The ultimate mutual narcissistic trans-continental love affair which begins by comparing rental car benefits blossoms into witty banter, calendaring rendezvous into travel schedules and texting suggestive goodnight messages while lounging in Hilton bathrobes. It’s all so Hepburn-Tracy. Yet love in this world is not an easy maze to navigate—a world of two adults who are not-so-consenting to the idea of commitment. It is a perplexing turn of events as our hero comes face-to-face not only with a worthy competitor, but the one person who could actually understand him as he understands himself. Could it be that our heartless loner may have been wrong all this time about the weight of human interaction and—dare we say it—the worth of love?
Alas, even though you can see so much of what’s coming halfway through and there really isn’t much that shocks you, there’s still something missing here. I get all the irony and metaphor and the story of one man’s inability to commit set against the backdrop of socio-economic collapse and personal tragedy. But what never plays for me is why and how it all feels so light. There’s something to be said for laying off the heavy-handed message-telling and delivering a movie with a deeper meaning with a light touch, but, for me, it loses any emotional attachment when it stops trying to speak to the heart—or even the gut. An audience doesn’t want to watch a treatise on our times, we see that every night on the news. We go to the movies to escape, to bond with characters and to feel something. And Up in the Air just leaves you empty.
Up in the Air certainly is not a bad film, it’s just not a film that resonates emotionally. It, like its main character, is detached and risk-free, distant and calculated. That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable experience. There are funny moments, and the performances are all first-rate, but it just never connects.