I structured the most recent Australia Day holiday around an afternoon session of the acclaimed film Up in the Air. As is clear from the foregoing, I had greatly been looking forward to seeing it, thanks largely to its appealing trailer, but, in the end, having seen it interfered quite a lot with the good mood I happened to be in that day. It wasn’t that I thought it was a bad film; after all, it didn’t bore me, something for which there is a great deal to be said. My resulting ill temper was much more to do with the message it seemed to me to be keen to deliver.
As everyone walking the earth must be aware by this time, in Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to travel constantly around the United States firing people and who likes to amass frequent flyer miles. While doing so, he has some confrontations with a young female co-worker who wants to ground all the firers and do the firing by teleconference, and he also falls in love with Alex (Vera Farmiga), another apparently untethered executive. There is, as well, a subplot concerning the wedding of one of Ryan’s sisters, whom he, of course, rarely sees because he is so disconnected from everyone around him. That’s virtually it for the plot, which is fine with me because I don’t like to have to master a complicated story anyway. In fact, I was actively delighted with the premise because my second-favourite type of film, after the ones about people who are living a lie in their professional lives (I refer you to Paper Mask, Rogue Trader and Shattered Glass), are those that concern someone wearing a business suit, travelling around and having intense conversations with colleagues whom they find professionally and personally threatening (I refer you to The Business of Strangers).
My disappointment with Up in the Air lay in the fact that I had been under the impression that it was going to be full of subtle and intriguing insights into the human condition. Unfortunately, though, I found the film to be so judgmental that it was as though it came to us directly from the God of the Old Testament. Now, I’ve not read the novel on which the film is based, but, judging by the synopsis on Wikipedia, it’s about a million times more interesting than the movie, so my hope is that the film’s success will, at least, give its sales a kick along.
The message of Up in the Air is, it seems to me, this: handsome Ryan lives by himself and doesn’t want to get married or have a family, so he will have to pay for being such a crazy madman. Personally, I would have liked to see more about what kind of effect firing people for a living really has on an individual, with all the complex anxiety and guilt that it would surely produce, with your own helplessness, as a fellow human being, and powerfulness, as the one who gives your fellow human beings their marching orders, simultaneously being reinforced. With Up in the Air, though, the principal issue seems to be the barrenness and isolation of Ryan’s life due to the fact that all he does is fly around the US the whole time and isn’t able to hug a child at the end of the day.
One obstacle to me agreeing with the film’s thesis is that, I have to be honest, Ryan’s lifestyle looked pretty good to me. Yes, his apartment was a little on the sterile side, but it was nothing that a few well-chosen and placed knick-knacks couldn’t have sorted out. Also, it’s just so enjoyable to go to airports, and check the departure boards and watch planes taking off, especially, I would imagine, when you’re doing this instead of sitting at a desk all day, and, too, there is Ryan’s entitlement to sit in the terminals’ fancy lounges, something that I would like to do. As well, to my mind, there are few things in life more exciting than opening the door of a hotel room for the first time and seeing what lies behind it.
Nonetheless, when Ryan (SPOILER ALERT!) finally really risks himself emotionally to be with Alex and is rejected, reaching his milestone of one million frequent flyer miles alone and unhappy, we are given to understand that he has let real life pass him by and will now forever be condemned to his desolate existence without human connection. The sad truth is, though, that many females do, unfathomably, adhere to the stereotype of all women being mad keen to get married, so it’s not as though Ryan, a man with no apparent gambling or substance abuse problems and who, therefore, surely has some money in the bank, couldn’t get a wife in approximately two seconds whenever he wanted to.
Furthermore, something I really resent about works like Up in the Air that take as their theme the emptiness of the single life is the effect that they must surely have on people who, without having chosen to do so, have ended up without close family relationships, or without a significant other and/or children. If I were someone who already felt down on myself for not having a spouse and not being a parent, by the end of Up in the Air I would be following in the footsteps of one of its characters (another SPOILER ALERT!) and throwing myself off a bridge. This kind of film is applauded for its humanity but, I feel, is really just about declaring that certain types of lives, those that aren’t ‘all about family’, aren’t worth living.
Up in the Air’s preachy desperation to get its, to my way of thinking, socially conservative message across really plucked my nerves. It reminded me of accounts I read back in the nineteen eighties of women dragging their husbands along to Fatal Attraction to warn them of the possible dire consequences were they to stray, and how irritating I found this both then and now. These days, Up in the Air may well be performing the same function for partners of those in that much-maligned group of individuals known as the ‘commitment phobic’.