The folks in probable Oscar contender Up in the Air are neither here nor there nor anywhere. Warning: they might just be us.
There’s a scene in Jason Reitman‘s new film, Up in the Air, that made me involuntarily blurt something dumb like “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” or “Toooootally!” It wasn’t a triumphant comeuppance or a romantic reunion scene that made me raise my fist embarrassingly in the air. Nope, friends, it was a scene that portrayed a hoppin’ conference party, complete with name badges, cheap cocktails, and a B-list celebrity collecting his latest paycheck by pumping up a crowd of corporate tech geeks.
While I wouldn’t say conference culture was exactly celebrated in this movie, which is an exploration of the various effects of isolation brought about by the bland, sanitized Business Class life, it certainly wasn’t ridiculed. For many of us, an occasional trip to an expo is the norm, and if we can cut loose from the stuffiness that can come along with it, more power to us. The exciting thing is that it’s even been noticed. Thousands and thousands of us attend these sorts of things, but Hollywood for some reason tends to pass up the glamorous frequent flyer life. Well, beware the extremes, this film cautions, because when a Homewood Suites begins to feel more at home than…well, home, it may be too late to reconnect with the human race.
Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, has completely and cheerfully adapted into a very specific 21st-century culture. A representative for a career placement company who travels office to office all over the country, firing employees for his clients, Ryan spends more time on the road (or in the air, more accurately) than off it. One of the first lines in the movie establishes that the connected-by-shuttle-bus world of transportation is his home. His door is a check-in kiosk, his key is a credit card, and his preferred welcome is from an airline employee, who pays his elite status proper respect. He’s replaced his belongings with various customer loyalty program cards and has channeled all of his natural ambition and drive into the only currency in his world that matters — frequent flyer miles. As Ryan explains to his unenthusiastic but determined young protege, Natalie Keener (played by Anna Kendrick), who naively asks him what he plans to purchase with his impressive intangible hoard, “The miles are the goal.” Forget the new sports car or mansion (material goods that interest Ryan not at all), to achieve the highest possible status in his world, one simply has to collect the highest number of miles.
It’s a simple goal, uncluttered by any distractions. And there aren’t too many distractions to go around. Romance sprouts in a hotel lounge, achieves fruition upstairs, and then fades away before the next morning’s courtesy wake-up call from the front desk. One of these encounters turns into a little something more when Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems a perfect and like-minded match, happy to share rental car ratings and coordinate travel itineraries in order to plan the next tryst. Amused and enchanted by young Natalie’s struggles to keep her connections at home, Alex and Ryan wonder whether or not they are forming a connection of their own.
It’s possible we’re not in a place to judge the peace and comfort Ryan found among the concierges. Maybe this world of connections, while absolutely necessary for some (like Natalie), only exposes us to pain and loss. Or maybe some people (like Alex) have their own motivations for skimming above the ground but never really on it. Your involvement with the film will depend on how close or far you feel from its characters – although either extreme will be powerful. Even if you have never once experienced the plastic feel of business travel, you’ll be familiar with the concept of “glocalization” (you know, having meetings via videoconference, or in this case, firing people remotely from your cubicle) another form of isolated interaction that, Reitman points out, we proclaim will free us from the drudgery of travel. Perhaps people like Ryan Bingham and his eagerness to go the literal distance are exactly what we need in order to keep things moving at all, before we become completely static — soulless, metallic voices reading from a script.
It’s left up to you to judge, and don’t worry, it’s not as grim as all that. We aren’t left with the defeat of the future; there’s still a lot of hope in the form of, surprisingly enough, the recently laid-off. And there’s the varying fates of Alex, Natalie, and Ryan, which can be seen as hopeful, depending on your version of a fulfilling life. Up in the Air could easily have delivered a nice, pat message that we should smell those roses more often, but instead we’re forced to decide for ourselves what exactly those roses symbolize. And while I can’t give away the ending, I can tell you that the predictable conclusion would have been in some ways more satisfying and in some ways wholly “un-.” To me, that’s the best ending there can be.