December 29th, 2009
One of the joys of fictional narratives is that writers have free rein to start their story at any point in their characters’ lives. Unless we’re literally following a character from the time of their birth to the time of their death, there are parts of their stories that are simply not going to be told; instead, writers will select a particular time to pick up a character’s story that feels the most cinematic, or pressing, or engaging.
Television is at a distinct advantage in this area when compared with film, in that it is able to pick up multiple moments over the course of multiple seasons. Mad Men has made a business of using time shifts in order to find Don Draper amidst particular historical periods, while a show like Weeds fastforwarded its heroine’s pregnancy in an effort to streamline its position in the narrative. This is plausible, even desirable, because the lengthy runs of television shows allow them to create their own past, present and future – the narrative becomes longer and the moments become more plentiful and the characters’ lives become augmented by their lives as it relates to our experience (measured in seasons as opposed to years).
But with cinema, at least with those films which aren’t part of a broader franchise or serving as a sequel, there is an expectation that things will largely standalone. You will meet a set of characters at a particular point in their lives, and you will follow those characters for as long the writer intends for you to do so. And that’s sort of what I find fascinating about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, a film where we meet a variety of characters at a definitely cinematic point in their lives. It is a film where we meet those at a crossroads in their lives, and one which is far less interested in how they got to this point than it is interested in what they’re going to do now that they’re here.
And in terms of finding a strong narrative of self-realization and life choices, Reitman has picked the right moment: it has also, however, led to some very strong negative reactions to the film from those who were expected a more indepth investigation into any one of the story’s various elements.
Up in the Air is not a film about Ryan Bingham. While some have responded negatively to Alex’s deception because it was predictable or because it ruined a potential romantic comedy ending, my issue is that it too cleanly defined Alex as a manipulation of Ryan’s emotions. Vera Farmiga gives a great performance in this movie, and the fact that she was willing to go to Ryan’s sister’s wedding seems to indicate that she wasn’t treating this as a simple escape, so for her to turn into an ice queen once Ryan shows up at her door, with almost no sense of regret, is far too simple. It suggests that the film only followed her because she was relevant to Ryan Bingham, and there are other elements of the film (in particular Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener) which indicate that this is about something bigger than this single character.
This film isn’t set up to really be about Ryan Bingham, because the information we receive about his past is minimal at best. We get brief glimpses of what his life has been like, like the subtle bits of dialogue which indicate that he’s been carrying on a sexual relationship with his neighbour, but it never paints us a picture of how he became someone who spends 90% of his life on the road, and why he is so fixated on gaining 10,000,000 miles. The film never goes back in time to show us the moment where he became like this, where he invented the idea of the backpack as a way of limiting interpersonal connections or when he decided he wanted nothing more to do with his family.
And while some have argued that this makes the character implausible, I would suggest that it doesn’t appear in the movie because it is irrelevant. Reitman is clearly interested in those moments where people reach a turning point, a crossroads in their lives that has them re-evaluating their current way of living. For Ryan Bingham, this emerges as a series of circumstances where his job (selling recently fired employees on the potential to be found in re-evaluating their current way of living), his employer (which is looking to re-evaluate their way of doing business through the use of video conferencing), his reluctant protege (Keener, who is spearheading the technological revolution while struggling with her rush to settle down), his sister (on the cusp of being married), his other sister (going through a trial separation), and the hundreds of employees he fires all converge to force him to question his current lifestyle.
What makes the film work is that it is far more interested in investigating Bingham’s position than it is about making him happy or miserable. The film’s ending does not suggest that everyone lives happily ever after, and even if we go beyond his most meaningful human connection turning out to be a lying adulteress we find a man who never has that moment where things suddenly change. The film surrounds Bingham with more human contact than he seems to have had in years, and places it at just the right time in his life for him to feel like he’s drifting enough to fly on that plane to find Alex. There’s a cruel irony to the fact that it is on his flight of shame back to Omaha that he finally joins the 10,000,000 mile mark, suggesting that mistakes are part of life (and, in particular, part of one of his major life goals). And when we leave him standing in front of that board, we’re left to wonder whether he’s come to the point where he’s willing to just pick a destination and go, or whether he’s going to move onto his next mass firing, or whether he’s actually ready to settle down.
And I don’t think there’s a clear “right” choice in this instance. I don’t find that the film goes so far as to suggest that Bingham’s lifestyle is actually dangerous or unfulfilling. After all, both Alex (whose moment of realization came when she started using her business trips as an escape from her marriage) and Natalie (whose moment of realization comes when a woman commits suicide after being fired, prompting her to stop settling and go after the career she wanted in San Francisco) make choices that are built on independence but yet require human connections (Alex needing both her affair with Ryan and her family to satisfy her life’s desires, Natalie getting the job based on Bingham’s reference). Even Bingham’s philosophy is built around his belief that he’s always surrounded by people: he’s not a hermit so much as he is someone who only lives in a particular moment, avoiding the past and the future (which makes the party crashing sequence perfect for him, and somewhat more of a challenge for non-drunk Natalie). No single philosophy becomes the film’s “moral,” which allows its ending to remain quite subversive of expectations not only in terms of not heading into a more romantic conclusion (which troubled my mother) but also not necessarily outlining a clear destination for these characters.
I think what I got from the conclusion was the idea that Ryan was starting to understand the way that his life could actually help people, perhaps buying into the type of dialogue he offers to the people he fires. The scene with J.K. Simmons is what one would consider a textbook example of how what Bingham does is actually valuable, and how it can put into perspective things which are hard to see during times of hardship. It seems like the Bingham we find at the end of the film has a better understanding of how people connect with one another, and as he prepares to transfer miles to his sister and brother-in-law and offers a reference to Natalie’s new employer it’s clear that he’s heading out onto the road with a greater understanding of what he wants out of his own life. Now, I’m not convinced that this is a nuclear family, or that it’s the exact opposite of the nuclear family: rather, he’s a guy who’s capable (literally) of going anywhere a plane can take him, and the destination board is an open slate that will reveal many more moments where Reitman could have zeroed in on this character.
That he chose this one, to my mind, indicates that Bingham’s journey is more about what it tells us about people (both the characters in the movie, and the real unemployed people Reitman cast as the majority of the fired employees) at these times of transition, and how their re-evaluations of their lives forces them to consider things in an entirely different light. Clooney, Kendrick and Farmiga (along with the rest of the cast, really) give great performances here as three characters who are forced to confront these types of issues, and what really makes the movie work is that despite Clooney’s unquestionable charm and poise in this role the film is not just about Bingham. Reitman very clearly chose these moments in his life because they represent the crossroads at which the people around him, his job, and his own life come together to force a comprehensive reconsideration of his lifestyle that partially takes place on screen but is left largely undecided by the time the film comes to its conclusion.
Which makes it a great conversation piece, and a fine piece of filmmaking.
- I think the ending biggest problem is how it reduces Alex (as argued above) and Natalie as footnotes in Bingham’s journey: the film is arguably held together by Natalie’s position learning the ropes of Ryan’s job and serving as a humanizing force in his life, so for her to be marginalized once they’re pulled off the road felt a bit off (perhaps because of how bloody great Kendrick is in this movie).
- Alan Sepinwall’s review is as well-written as his TV reviews always are, but the comments are sort of confounding: some people really despised this movie, some believing that its selective perspective made the character implausible or that the film didn’t fully understand the plight of the unemployed. As noted, I don’t think the film was trying to be a full-on character study or a documentary on unemployment, but it is interesting to see how some people are turning on the film based on the inherent cinema magic found in its coincidences running into a brick wall of realism that its topical setting implies.