Character Study: Up in the Air

Have you guys seen Up in the Air yet? Yea, me too. I just saw it yesterday, and since it’s been out a year, I thought I’d talk about it – specifically about its protagonist, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney. With a lot of spoilers.

Our main character begins where many people begin when talking about their life, he talks about his job. It’s who he is, it is his entire identity. Ryan Bingham, as you probably know, fires people. He travels the country over, 300 plus days a year, firing employees whose bosses just couldn’t stomach it.

Bingham is a solitary character, always on the move. He compares himself, and people in general, to sharks, predatory and mobile. But sharks are also dangerous loners for the most part, machines designed expressly for killing. And beneath Clooney’s pearly white smile is that machine.

Our man is happy with his life. He loves traveling, airports and hotel rooms. He loves the freedom, presumably, from having to live a dour stationary life, which he views as death. In his smugness, literally looking down on everyone as he reaches a 10 million mile mark that the film chose simply out of “sounding legit, ” Bingham never feels the pain of loneliness, he never yearns for more substantial human contact or relationships. He doesn’t want a family or love. It’s obvious now that the film’s job is to change his mind, so that he can grow as a human and accomplish what we all think he should.

At first, the movie puts Bingham next to the gorgeous Vera Farmiga, playing a fellow traveling professional named Alex. These two compare their elite status at varying car rental agencies and airlines, and Alex is so turned on by Bingham’s credentials they start seeing each other. Always on the road, but not anonymous anymore. It’s obvious that Bingham is developing feelings.

Next the film pairs up our man with a younger female partner, Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who is also trying to change the nature of his work and take him off the beloved road. Predictably, Bingham throws a fit. They have a rocky start as he teaches her the ropes of the road while simultaneously criticizing her every move, from her typing volume to her naivety in about every area of life.  It’s obvious that he feels like a teacher, maybe more of a babysitter, and resents having to take on this extra weight. He is not as mobile with her. He even breaks down how much time she is wasting with her practices.  But, really, what is he afraid of missing? Surely, as time goes on, they’ll learn a little about each other and themselves along the way, right movie?

There is also a third subplot involving Bingham’s family, specifically his two sisters who he rarely sees. They are both up in Milwaukie, his presumed hometown, and both sisters are living in various stages of the American dream: one is marrying, the other divorcing. When Bingham visits for the wedding, bringing along Alex as a date, we think that things are going to turn for the obvious. And in many ways the movie is telegraphing these emotions and changes in varying looks and ominous “welcome home” kinds of dialogue.

But it doesn’t stick. Bingham decides he wants something more with Alex, only to find out she has had a family (and husband) all along. Not only is he shocked to learn that, but it also takes a lot of the re-inventing himself wind out of his sails. Alex simply asks him, “what do you want?” and he is unable to answer. He thought he wanted her, he thought he wanted all those ideal stereotypes that surround him, only to see they hardly exist at all.

He even gets to the 10 million mile mark, and captain Sam Elliot (seriously? awesome.) congratulates him. But, it’s obviously grown hollow to him. It’s no longer all he cares about. He must have grown a little bit by now. Yet, Bingham never takes that action we expect. He never walks through the door and gives a heroic speech or strikes out on his own to pursue a lifelong dream, he doesn’t even get the girl. Damn.

Many times throughout the film there is a referencing to getting older, and what that means. How you see the world for what it is, and it ain’t what you thought when you were young.But, the movie doesn’t really argue in favor of maturity. Natalie tells Bingham that he’s still a 12 year-old boy inside. He hasn’t grown up, only grown older. And that is the note the movie wants to hit, that distinction.

I think this is the heart of director Jason Reitman’s story. As we get older we don’t get wiser or better, we simply adjust as our ideals fall away. When the young Natalie bullet points a laundry list of what she looks for in a man, the older Alex breaks it down into compromises you’ll eventually make, of settling and taking what you can get.

As we age, we all must fight harder and harder for less and less. Whether it’s for happiness, health,  love or employment. Most of the people fired in this movie were older, in their 50’s. What are they to do now that the younger world around them no longer needs them? Where will they go? What fight will they be able to take on?

This is not a happy movie by any means, but it does feel very realistic in a way I did not expect. After watching Reitman’s too-cool-for-school Juno, with it’s youth and hope and strength, I was almost shocked to see Up in the Air‘s grieving, it’s sadness and hopelessness. Things suck out there, and people are having a hard time. Are there any answers? Unfortunately, the film offers little to none.

Here's a tip: always order four dinners if you get a meal credit. Also, no sharing.

The most striking thing is how nothing really changes at the end of the movie. Bingham is still flying to his firings, despite new technology and the youth that pioneered it. He is still a confirmed bachelor, and still relatively smug in his station. Natalie is on her own in San Francisco, following a path she had set for herself back in college apparently. Everyone is going about their lives.

I really had expected a revolt on the part of Bingham as he leaves the rat race and starts living for himself or some other bullshit. But it doesn’t happen. There is no game changer, just a changing game. And Up in Air knows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.The film began in the clouds, and it ended in the clouds, much like our own lives. That’s deep, man.

I really liked this movie more than I expected. I also thought about it more than I expected, and obviously (by this rambling attempt at critical thinking) I still have some pondering to do. Maybe that’s a compliment to the film. I didn’t see it coming.

-Charlie

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