Up in the Air (2009)

Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner
Adapted from: Up in the Air by Walter Kirn
Cast: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Danny McBride, Melanie Lynskey
Nominations: Picture, Director – Jason Reitman, Actor – George Clooney, Supporting Actress – Vera Farmiga, Supporting Actress – Anna Kendrick, Adapted Screenplay

I have seen Up in the Air a few times now, and to be honest, it always rings hollow to me.  That’s not to mean it’s empty or without merit: just that it either doesn’t believe in its theme and what it has to say or it’s hoping we’re distracted enough by George Clooney wooing Vera Farmiga that we won’t notice that things happen and then it pretty much just… ends.  The thing is, I enjoy the film.  The characters are fun and interesting, the editing is exciting, the dialogue has snap and layers, and so on.  It’s really an entertaining and eloquent—but when the credits roll, there’s not much we’re left to think about.  The film’s cynicism runs deep, true, but that lacks a kind of poignancy that everything we’ve seen Ryan go through should lead to.

One of the biggest imagery motifs in the film involves fragmentation—pieces that make up a completed whole.  The opening credits features paneled views of clouds and aerials of cities; the destination board lists individual flights to make a full schedule; Ryan stares out the divided airport window, airplane windows, and hotel windows; Julie and Jim ask friends and family to take photos of different locations with their cutout to fill a map of the United States.  Even Ryan’s seminar speech involves compartmentalizing everything in your life to just value the barest of bare necessities to more or less just exist.  It’s a fantastic metaphor that highlights Ryan’s loneliness, isolation, and overall desire to remain apart from any kind of substantial relationship.  There’s nothing new with that character trait, but when the film eventually moves toward Ryan finally making a commitment to Alex, he’s obliterated with the fact that she already has a life.

This is a marvelous plot twist that sends Ryan and us a heavy emotional blow that he and we never fully recover from for the remainder of the film.  What it also does is confirm for Ryan that he’s better off with a lighter backpack because you can’t get hurt if you’re not carrying more than you can control. 

Beyond that, though, what message is offered to us in the audience?  That it’s better to be alone?  That relationships cause pain?  The last we see of Ryan is him letting go of his suitcase as he reads the destination board.  Symbolically, of course, he’s letting go for an unknown future, but what exactly is he letting go of?  More than likely, he’s going to be flying to various places, just as he has been doing, continuing to maintain his distance from humanity and personal connections.  Is that supposed to be fulfilling?  It’s not optimistic or hopeful; it’s a wholly cynical ending that, as mentioned above, doesn’t carry any weight (pun intended).  (Even a film like, say, Bad Santa [Terry Zwigoff, 2003] ends with an uplifting feeling while still letting its protagonist maintain his initial cynicism and apathy.)

I’m not saying that a happy ending is necessary, or a film has to provide answers to its questions, but when we walk out of a film feeling the same way we walked in, what has the film accomplished?  That happens in life, to be sure, as the words from the real people who have been fired attest to, but narratives aren’t life: we’re looking for a point, a purpose in stories, and when there isn’t one, there’s a flatness that hangs over the story.  Maybe it’s all supposed to tie into the title, that nothing can ever be resolved—which works to an extent, but that’s getting into a postmodernist approach that the film otherwise has no connection to.  It’s disappointing more than anything, because Up in the Air has everything we’d expect an important, meaningful, and classic film to have; unfortunately, it’s just as unsure about itself as the fired characters are.