December 14, 2009

Taking It Home: Up in the Air

("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?

20 comments:

  1. ***SPOILERS*** this comment is probably going to be spoiler rich so if you haven't seen the movie, scram.

    For me it was the ambiguous ending that made the film work for me. Up to that point, yeah it was slick and enjoyable but pretty unspectactular.

    I took from it that he didn't actually change. It was too late for him and that's kind of sad. The good news is that Anna Kendrick took from her experience with him and I think became a better person...or at least one more likely to be happy. Less career oriented. Less consumed by a list of check boxes she feels she needs to tick off in order to have a happy life.

    Though Clooney is the star, I think Kendrick is the real focus of the film.

    Clooney's ending was kind of a bitter and probably realistic twist. How many of us really make the big change, especially at Ryan Bingham's age? The real tragedy is he finally clearly realizes the emptiness of his ways.

    It's this little edge that for me elevated it to something more than a likable entertainment. Had he ended up with Farmiga and they all lived happily ever after, it would've been satisfying in the short term as you leave the theater with a smile, but it would've vaporized by the time you got to your car in the parking lot. It would've been too easy.

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  2. Continued spoilers ...

    Daniel: Good thoughts. A few back ...

    At the risk of sounding condescending, which isn't my intent, I think some of the ambiguousness that you feel that seems problematic only underlines how conditioned we are to Everything Being Tied Up In The End. The story can end happy or sad, but most movies of this ilk end clearly. The last thing we expect as we're watching this is an ambiguous ending (this ain't Lynch). Instead this film yanks our chain a bit, at least in regard to Clooney's character. I'm not sure I'd say that "makes" the film for me, as it does for Craig, but it doesn't hurt it, and it does feel more real.

    As for Bingham and his job, I'd disagree with you about his attitude. Yes, it's a tool in his quest for his coveted miles. But you can see in his relationship with Natalie that he does care about his career. No, he doesn't have a job where he wakes up every day and says, "I love this!" But he is committed to it, doesn't seem worn out by it, takes it seriously and thinks it has value and nobility. Relatively speaking, I think he's happy in his career.

    As for the backpack philosophy ...

    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.

    I think Bingham's change is an awareness of a different worldview. He finally wants to connect. That doesn't mean he does connect, but that he wants to. If you think about it, that's a huge change.

    However, my biggest complaint with the film is that I don't think the backpack stuff works beyond what we see. In other words, other than the 5 minutes or so that we see of the backpack routine, how does the rest of the presentation go? What is its point? What are the lessons?

    In the first segment he talks about burning the backpack. In the second he says people don't have to burn their backpack if it contains their relationships (even though at that point he's anti-relationship). That's a contradiction, so, what's the point? Stuff is heavy? He goes on speaking tours to tell people that? Really? Defining the problem is never the point of seminars like these, it's solving it. So what are the solutions he provides in his backpack lectures? Why is this powerful to people? How can he help them? It's unclear. Essentially it's a gimmick that works well to teach us about the character within these little bits, but it's almost impossible for us to imagine him continuing his seminar beyond what we see.

    I'll probably get around to writing a review of this eventually, but there are some initial thoughts.

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  3. I agree with Jason that we're conditioned to expect tidy endings. That's why this one for me was such a pleasant surprise. Rather than leave the theater feeling placated, I left actually thinking about what I'd just seen. Yes, that's par for the course in foreign films and a lot of indie stuff, but it's unexpected from something from one of the big studios.

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  4. Can always count on you guys to add insightful and interesting comments to make me reflect on my own thoughts.

    First, Craig, I have yet to catch up to your review, though I saw you praise the ending at LiC and most of the film in general. Two interesting things you bring up here: 1.) That Bingham didn't change. If he really didn't, and he's over his heartbreak with Alex and he's thrilled to go back on the road and this was just a temporary encounter with reality, well that's an extremely bold resolution - and one that wasn't fully clear to me. There was just enough action and reflection (leaving the backpack seminar, being disappointed by the 10 million mile ceremony, etc.) toward the end that I felt like he was meant to have changed at least marginally, as Jason suggests.

    It was almost as if the happy ending with Alex was intended, but it didn't come to be because of her, not because of him. In other words, he changed but it was just too late, and while that's an interesting ending, it's not quite as bold as him not changing at all (which you're right, is a much more realistic scenario).

    2.) Your other point about the focus being on Natalie is entirely plausible, and while I recognized there was an underlying message about what she learned, I never considered that she may be the real focal point. In that case I'd have liked a little more exploration of her character and motivations (why did she get into that industry in the first place, for example, aside from the move to the city?).

    Jason, as you mention the waking up in the morning/zest for life, I can't help but be reminded of Jerry Maguire's mentor, Dicky Fox. And maybe because Bingham never expresses any enthusiasm about his job (not to be confused with enthusiasm about how his job is structured), I never got the sense that he was that passionate about his work, insofar as giving or taking any lessons from the act of terminating people.

    I'm convinced that his real passion, and he admits as much, was collecting miles - that was his career. I'd love to be able to do that and I think it's a cool goal, but I wouldn't consider it noble or admirable, and I'm not sure Bingham could convince anyone that it was, either. Maybe that's what he learned on his last flight.

    Then there's that tricky backpack business. The whole idea of it is ripe for dissection, and while I don't think it was the purpose of this film, those scenes functioned well to lampoon our addiction with easy money/self-help schemes based on nothing more than flashy metaphors. But really, how did he start this, and when did he figure out that his lifestyle was somehow marketable?

    And beyond your questions of what the lessons were or why people were interested, what was his motivation in spreading this gospel in the first place? Something about "if you're not moving, you're not living" - interesting concept, but what does he gain from sharing it? A sense that others can enjoy their lives, or that the world will be a better place? If so that would speak to some internal altruism that doesn't really jive with what we otherwise see in his character.

    At the end of the day we're comparing a lot of minor details here, especially for a a movie that it sounds like we all enjoyed. Reitman clearly succeeded in making a film with enough room to swim around in, and my questions weren't meant as an indictment of the ending so much as an investigation into what I felt were contradictory and cursory messages sprinkled throughout. Of course those could come from the source novel by Walter Kirn which I haven't read, but that's probably another discussion altogether.

    Ah, hope no one is intimidated by the length of this comment. One word comments are welcome as well!

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  5. I wouldn't go so far as to say Bingham didn't change (even if that's exactly what I said). I would say he changed inside, but not enough to actually change his behavior. Unlike his victims whom he counsels to see the end as a new beginning, he basically chickened out. It's a sad ending for him.

    And to say Natalie is the focal point is a little extreme, but often times in a movie with a sad or ambiguous ending, there's a character who is the keeper of the hope (or the keeper of the flame your favorite bit of business from The Road :) and she's it.

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  6. I've had at least 3 emails from publicists telling me the release date for this has been pushed back in our area. It's now supposed to open on Dec. 25. I just can't make myself excited about this, or any of the Oscar contenders for that matter (most of which I've just found middling), and I'm lukewarm on Reitman - liked THANK YOU FOR SMOKING but hated JUNO. So we'll see. It's winning all the critics awards hasn't really piqued my interest either. This year it's kind of like winning the tallest midget award. I hope to find out for myself soon.

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  7. I can't believe you read through that whole comment, Craig. Suffice to say we can agree to disagree on exactly how much Bingham changed, but I would agree that the ending leaves him hanging nicely up in the air, so to speak. And one of the things about Natalie's character that confused me was how quickly she changed on the road (and her relationship with it). What was the length of their trip, anyway? Could have been weeks or months or just a few days - I was a little lost.

    Matthew, I recommend you see it as I actually liked it more than both TYFS and Juno. Maybe don't expect the best picture of the year, but I think you might enjoy it in parts.

    And yeah, so far the bar is pretty low in 2009 for what can be considered the Best.

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  8. What sucks is that there are lots of damn good films that were released this year. It's just that none of them are getting any Oscar buzz, and the overwhelming majority are not American. It has been a really good year, but you can't tell that from the crop of Oscar hopefuls.

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  9. Maybe that's a better way to look at. Up in the Air really hit a nerve with some segment of the population and/or the Hollywood elite, though, and the combination of Clooney and Reitman is pretty much guaranteed to get Oscar consideration regardless of quality.

    As it happens, I haven't read many reviews of Up in the Air but I think Vera Farmiga should be getting a little more critical love. At least if Clooney is.

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  10. Even though I loved this film, I can see where a lot of your issues are coming from...

    First off, regarding your last comment, I wholeheartedly agree with you that Farmiga should be getting more buzz. I think all three are Oscar-nomination quality, but they seemed just a tad too effortless to seem like Oscar-winning roles (perhaps because Reitman wrote these parts specifically for the actors--and the script is beautiful).

    Now about the article itself...I agree with you that Bingham's true passion is his miles. I think he does his best to convince himself that his job is a noble one, but his true heart lies in the "magic" of traveling from place to place with no connections.

    One of the things I got out of the film was a man comparing two different lifestyles. In one, he has a life on road, constantly moving from city to city, without any real relationships. He is completely obsessed with collecting air miles, and is truly happy doing it.

    In the other lifestyle, he has a companion with him on the road. A young, eager, teachable young woman that is willing to learn from Bingham just as much as he learns from her. Clooney's character also has a romantic relationship in this lifestyle, one he really believes in. He cares about this woman more than he has any one before, and although Bingham does change in this arena, he remains incredibly happy.

    I think that the film was trying to show us that no matter what type of lifestyle you lead, it will always be better when you have people to share it with. (SPOILERS) Think about how devastated Clooney was after Alex left him, and think about how he responded. He didn't respond by jumping on an airplane and finding a room for a one-night stand, but he wrote a letter to help out Natalie. Even though the film ends with him in the airport, I think both his hesitation to return to that lifestyle and the letter he wrote to Natalie showed how much he really valued the relationships he developed. He finally felt passionate about something other than air miles.

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  11. Thanks for your thoughts, Danny. Well based on the SAG noms just announced, Farmiga did get some nice recognition from her peers, so that's good. Effortless is a good way to describe particularly Clooney's role - why everyone is so impressed with a performance he could do in his sleep, I can't say.

    I really like your analysis of the two different lifestyles. That's a clean comparison and I think it explains his change and/or lack of change well. It's almost like he changes within those two identities, but he doesn't blend them and ultimately doesn't end up with the "best" one, even though he experience it for a while. Interesting...

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  12. Ha - I was thinking the same thing as Jason in regards to the speeches given by Clooney. We see the beginning, but that's about it. What is his point? And would "ditch everything you own and everyone you know" really turn out to be a successful speech? Methinks not.

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  13. Right? Like I said, it could be a great mockery of self-help gurus and that whole industry of self-improvement seminars, but I didn't get the impression that Reitman was winking.

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  14. Does anyone think this years movies are weak as hell? If Up in the Air is the front runner for Oscar, that is definitely the case.

    oh yeah...Daniel, I thought you'd like this...


    http://defamer.gawker.com/5428998/there-will-be-blood-wins-the-decade?skyline=true&s=x

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  15. Yeah that's what I was getting at in response to Matthew's comment. I've missed A LOT of new movies in 2009 (more than any year in the last 4-5), and yet I feel like I've missed almost nothing. Up in the Air is perfect Oscar bait and my guess is that it might take the prize (if not the popular vote), but color me underwhelmed if it happens.

    So TWBB finally gets a prize for you, eh? Not a bad list by any means, but pretty hard to swallow City of God that low.

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  16. I'm coming to this conversation late, perhaps after it's ended, but wanted to share my thoughts on a movie I enjoyed quite a bit.

    Did Bingham change? Yes, he pretty clearly did IMO. As another wrote, the film pretty clearly left him up in the air - a 40-something contract killer who's built a life on nothing more than himself and momentary diversions, who finds that there is something to be said for the baggage of relationships. The problem for Bingham was that his focus on himself caused him not to seek any information on Alex's life off the road. He set himself up. The reference he gave Kendrick is evidence of his change of heart and decision to start filling his backpack as he moves forward.

    On another note, Vera Farmiga's performance was beautifully done.

    Is it the year's best? Not by a long shot.

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  17. I like to think the conversations are never over here, James. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Sounds like we're in agreement that Up in the Air is a fun movie to watch but maybe not Best Picture-worthy in terms of important themes. Since you mention it I considered how odd it was that Bingham never pried more into Alex's life, but on the one hand he was totally self-absorbed (as you mention) and on the other, she seemed to be fairly private. So maybe it makes sense.

    I still don't know if I buy that he changed, though. The reference for Kendrick was out of character and so was the mysterious destination at the end, but I think he still had an "empty backpack" - the one thing that really defined him.

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  18. It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this article. Excellent entry! I'm been looking for topics as interesting as this. Looking forward to your next post.

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  19. Swedish Popcorn UserJune 20, 2010 at 3:38 PM

    Thank you for the interesting review.

    I just saw this movie, and I enjoyed it enough to go out and google for others' take on the ambigous ending.

    I was left with a strong impression that Bingham changed during the movie. He started valuing family relationships (being there for his sister and even going through the extra trouble to go to Vegas for the pictures)
    He started to actually care for Alex. He was clearly emotionally affected when she had a family.

    Meeting the Captain, it's almost like it's a symbolic meeting between Bingham and God himself. If you met God, what would you say? And the Captain nods and understands.

    The ending was beautiful in its depth. On the surface, he is just continuing his work.

    But looking deeper, there is so much more to the ending.

    When Bingham stands in front of the time table at the end, remember the discussion earlier in the movie - what would Natalie do if she had 10 million points. She would just look at the schedule and go somewhere, anywhere. Is this what he's going to do?

    He also lets go of his luggage. This is clearly a reference to his own words earlier in the film, that he has been thinking of emptying his backpack - so he can find out what he wants to put back in.
    At the same time, Binghams voice-over is talking about the stars on the night sky, and "one light in the sky whiter than the rest" being him. I take that as a reference to ancient beliefs that each star is representing a dead person. Perhaps Bingham commited suicide?

    Also, the words "whiter than the rest" sounds like a reference to e.e. cummings brilliant poem "it is at moments after i have dreamed", which is about a person in love.

    I loved this movie, and being a frequent flyer myself, I also recognize much of it from my own life. I still have a few million miles left until I get to meet the captain.

    I look forward to more smart movies like this.

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  20. Swedish Popcorn User (great handle), thanks for stopping by with a thoughtful comment. You have really looked into the meaning of the ending at a level that I have to admit I wasn't willing to (at least not for a Jason Reitman movie, hehe).

    As I said, I also left with the impression that Bingham changed, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly how. Your inquiry about his suicide is really fascinating, and, morose as it may be, that would be an ending I could accept. Also like your thoughts on the Captain as God!

    As an aside, I recently flew business class on a transatlantic flight (a standby perk from a pilot friend) and it was a pretty shocking experience. I understand better why people chalk up their miles, and the one admirable thing I can say about Bingham is that he never seemed to take his perks for granted. Same can't be said for some of the other travelers in business class - declining unlimited food/drink? Sleeping through the whole flight and not taking advantage of the On Demand programming? Come on - don't you remember what it was like in coach?!

    Anyway, safe travels to you as you rack up the miles...

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