From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
Up in the Air
DIR Jason Reitman SCR Ivan Reitman
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
By Santiago Ramos
I don’t want to be like Ryan Bingham, and it’s not because I don’t like to fly. No one wants to be like Ryan Bingham.
Bingham, the protagonist (played by George Clooney) of Up in the Air, works a job which has him travelling over 300 days a year. He calls himself a “career transition counselor,” and forms part of a corporation which sends its representatives across the country to do the dirty work of firing people for other companies—they deliver the pink slips so you don’t have to. Bingham is good at his job; he does it with firmness and humanity, with a mask of compassion which, while not making himself actually feel any empathy for the person being fired, nevertheless helps the termination progress without any major problems.
No, the reason why I would not want to be Bingham has more to do with his other job. Bingham also runs the lecture circuit, propagating his philosophy of individualism: Every person carries a backpack. Most back packs are too full, and weigh you down. The heaviest item you can place in a backpack is a relationship—family or friends. Keep your backpack light, because, “Make no mistake—to move is to live.” Thus Bingham lives from airport hub to airport hub, from Admiral’s Club to Marriott, and keeps a one-bedroom apartment in Omaha which is unoccupied most of the year.
Bingham is not bothered by his systematically-maintained loneliness. He glides swiftly through the aesthetic pleasures of life—food, sex, and fine hotel linens—without asking for more, and without admitting to himself any need for anything more. Thus a dramatic irony builds up throughout the first act of the film: we all know that Bingham can’t live like this—unattached and superficially—forever. Something will happen. The ultimate teleological meaning that Bingham has artificially created for himself—becoming the seventh person ever to collect ten million frequent flyer miles—will not be enough, either. The tension in the film is generated by bad philosophy.
Something does happen when Bingham falls in love with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman with whom he has been in a casual sexual relationship for a few months. After Bingham attends his sister’s wedding with Alex as his date, he learns to appreciate the joys of attachment and stability. And after he is forced to give a pep talk to his sister’s fiancé—who develops cold feet on the day of the wedding—he formulates a new philosophy of life: Life is pointless, but it’s better if you go through it with people you love.
Now we have a movie about romantic relationships, but the tension is still generated by Bingham’s philosophy of life. During the second act of the film, Bingham travels accompanied by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent college graduate and Bingham’s newly-hired coworker. Bingham is supposed to teach her the hub-to-hub lifestyle, and to inculcate his philosophy into her consciousness. When Keener’s boyfriend dumps her via text message, Bingham tells her that she is better off being unattached. But after changing his philosophy of life, Bingham thinks differently, and decides to try something like commitment, with Alex.
Director Jason Reitman was able to avoid sentimentality with the happy ending that he crafted for Juno, and in Up in the Air, he has gone a step further. Juno ends with a romantic embrace: We will take care of the baby together, and we will care for each other. Bingham is a lot older than Juno, however, and he is left with an unanswered question: What do I do now? The movie in the end is not about discovering a philosophy of life—neither of Bingham’s philosophies is adequate in the end—but about refining and articulating that question. At least now Bingham knows that his chosen life is not enough. He can fly anywhere, but he wants to fly somewhere. The last shot of the film is the most interesting image in it—sad and pregnant with possibility.
Few films I’ve seen in the last year attempt to involve the viewer as much as this one. I felt more a part of Bingham’s world than I ever did in Cameron’s Pandora. The film contains many monologues from fired workers, broken and desolate before Bingham and Keener after they have been told that they have been fired. These speeches almost break the fourth wall because we all know that they have been happening every day in our country during in the last year and a half. But the film also shows the way in which vulnerability before the question of happiness is something shared by the employed and unemployed alike, even by a high-flying debonair bachelor like Bingham. Even Ryan Bingham does not want to be Ryan Bingham.
Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.