("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)
My expression if asked, "What did you learn from Up in the Air?"...
For as much time and attention is given to the bothersome details of business traveling in Up in the Air, I'm surprised that airline food is never mentioned. Maybe it's because it would serve as an unfortunately accurate metaphor for the viewer: sectioned into bite-size portions like an in-flight meal, Up in the Air is tasty but ultimately unfulfilling. As a more direct metaphor, the film bounces from theme to theme like its main character bounces from city to city, with no apparent final destination in mind. I never felt like I got inside Ryan Bingham's head. He was an enigma and, like so many George Clooney characters, pretty one-dimensional.
Nonetheless, I liked Up in the Air. It was brisk, amusing entertainment showcasing a great ensemble cast. I just don't know what I supposed to take from it, which is particularly frustrating because I felt like Jason Reitman was trying so hard to teach me some really meaningful lessons - about loneliness and independence, unemployment and hard work, marriage and infidelity. But where were the dots connecting any of these very mixed messages together?
(Spoilers exist from here on.) Let's talk about What Ryan Bingham Was Supposed to Learn About Independence, for example, which is that you can't be happy in life without opening yourself up to other people. There have already been comparisons made between Bingham and Jerry Maguire (or more accurately Up in the Air and Jerry Maguire), but I was reminded much more so of Hugh Grant as Will in About a Boy. Like Will, Ryan Bingham is selfish, self-assured, aloof, and afraid. Both characters are interested in doing only what will guarantee a solitary life surrounded by stability and luxury.
While Will's attitude is mostly borne of laziness (he's inherited enough money to not have to work), Ryan Bingham's life philosophy is based on...what? It's totally empty, and by not identifying more deeply where the backpack metaphor comes from, the film makes it that much harder for us to see how Bingham changes, if he does at all. And maybe he doesn't; the ending is ambiguous enough so that he might pick up right where he started. But there are enough little heartbreaks and enough melancholic reflection scenes toward the end that I felt like I was supposed to have seen his character change in some way. It rung hollow for me, though, and I left confused about whether his lifestyle was meant to be defended or denounced.
Of course, much of my confusion has to do with Bingham's interactions with marriage during the course of this film, or What Ryan Bingham Was Supposed to Learn About Marriage and Committed Relationships. One sister is watching her marriage fall apart at the seams, the other is about to enter into a marriage with someone clearly not ready for it, and worst of all, Ryan's own lover is a committed mother and wife. And yet at the end it sounded like all of the clips of "people on the street" were chosen with a focus on the strength and comfort they derive from their marriages. Huh?
If I'm Ryan Bingham and every marriage I come into contact with is a sham, and the last non-marital committed relationship (Natalie's) I saw fell apart, wouldn't I be more convinced than ever before that my independent lifestyle is the best possible choice? Maybe I misunderstood something in this area, but I was really pretty depressed by the end of Up in the Air when I felt like I was meant to be uplifted.
And about that ending, or What Ryan Bingham Was Supposed to Learn About Work and Values. Here is a guy who is, at least on an emotional level, completely detached from his work. Ryan Bingham doesn't care about his job, or his career, or his industry. All he cares about is the opportunity to get paid to fly. He understands his job, and he does enough to ensure he keeps his job, but he doesn't actually enjoy his job. He doesn't derive value or meaning from firing people, and he certainly doesn't derive value or meaning from listening to the people he fires. And so far as I could tell, this attitude did not change at all during the course of our time with him. (Feel grieved for a nameless woman who killed herself? Nah, better to shift his attention to giving his promising protégé a leg up on her next job.)
If you didn't know, Up in the Air is being lauded for its timeliness in portraying America during the current recession, going so far as featuring actual interviews with the recently unemployed ("As Seen on TV"!) and even taking its title from a song written by an out-of-work songwriter (you'll hear it over the closing credits). But yet, instead of evoking empathy for the millions who have lost their jobs over the last 18 months, Up in the Air seems to tell us that it will all be OK. Calm down, deal with it. People have marriages to support them (nevermind if they're broken) and people have passions to inspire them (nevermind if they were hoping to retire, not begin new careers), and as long as you find something in your life (flying, perhaps) that can distract you from actually living it, you've got it made. Take a packet and discover your new opportunities.
What did you take home?