Thursday, January 7, 2010

Baggage Check -- Reflections on "Up in the Air"

"How much does your life weigh?"

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), in one of his self-help seminars, always opens with this phrase, which is the central question of Up in the Air. Our lives, Ryan believes, are weighed down with junk -- useless possessions and needless relationships. With a philosophy like this, and a charming smile to cover it up, it's no wonder Ryan makes his lucrative living by firing people for a living. Ryan's the man your boss hires when he's too chickenshit to can you himself. Ryan breaks people's hearts, reminds them of long lost dreams, then goes on his merry way to another plane, another airport, another hotel, and another conference room. His life is depressing.

Yet, it's the life he wants, the life he chooses.

And who are we to judge?

Until we ask, how much does your life weigh?

The title Up in the Air isn't just about flying in planes. It's about things not being what you thought they were, about being in transition. It could easily be about weightlessness. When the sum of your life carries no weight, what holds you down, keeps you sane and constant? Ryan Bingham is not a happy man; he'd just like you to think he is.

Ryan's shell begins to disintegrate when he meets two distinctly different women. Alex (Vera Farmiga) is another flight hopper Ryan meets in a hotel bar. The two strike up a connection over who has the cooler VIP hotel cards. Then they fuck, and thus begin their casual relationship. The other woman is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year old fresh-faced college grad with ideas of making Ryan's business more efficient by eliminating flights, hotel rooms, rental cars, and per diems and replacing them with laptops and webcams so the firing can be done on-line.

(As a sidenote, when I was 19, I broke up with a girl via e-mail. I am living evidence that this plan isn't really all that effective).

Both women challenge Ryan's way of thinking and living. With Alex he compares schedules to set up future trysts. Natalie, on the other hand, he drags along with him around the country to show her how his job is done and why computers are not the answer when dealing with the tenuous emotions of people on the edge. Pretty quickly, Natalie understands that while he's right about his job, he's wrong about the way he conducts his life. She sees how much he's falling for Alex after the three of them find themselves together one evening in Florida, and chastises him for treating the relationship as if it doesn't matter. Ryan keeps smiling, keeps pretending, but the cracks begin to show; he realizes that his life is weightless and he needs something -- someone -- to keep him grounded.

Up in the Air is a terrific movie. Directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno), the movie takes time to build its characters as we watch them live their lives. George Clooney puts in the best performance of his career, in a role that will no doubt earn him an Oscar nomination (and possibly a win). Vera Farmiga is sensational as Alex, who we come to adore as much as Ryan does.

Watching this movie, though, I was struck by the question. How much does my life weigh? I was in a good place to do it, too. This was the first time in years that I had gone to a movie theater to watch a movie alone. There was no wife, or children beside me to share popcorn with. It was just me, the silver screen, and the flickering shadows. I was alone, without connections. Up in the air.

I don't know the answer to that question for myself, but the fact that this film elicits that sort of response is enough to have me recommend it to you.

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