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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Up in the Air (review)

You Are Not Your Frequent Flyer Miles

Why, you’d almost think that Tyler Durden hadn’t gone off on those rants of his ten years ago. How did the anti-pointless-bullshit cautionary tale of Fight Club become the actual freakin’ blueprint for the past decade instead of the, you know, how-not-to-live anti-plan?

If there is a thrill of recognition to Up in the Air — and a horror of recognition, too — it may be because this funny and smart and bitter and gently shocking film so perfectly encapulates the self-delusion we’ve subjected ourselves to through the 2000s, and the quiet desperation we’ve lived with while living with that self-delusion. Not all of us as individuals, of course, but all of us in the aggregate, as a culture: we’ve collectively created a society that inserts artificial distance between people (jobs that keep us occupied 24/7, for instance), and we’ve called it Good (gotta make a living, right?), but now it’s all falling apart, and we don’t know how to deal with it.
Up in the Air might have been a sucker punch of a wakeup call if part of what we’ve done to ensure people stay disconnected from one another didn’t involve fracturing media to the point where only the choir shows up for the sermon they’re already predisposed to agree with. Though perhaps there’s some hope to be found in George Clooney’s presence here: perhaps the all-around appeal of Fantastic Mr. Clooney, who is our Cary Grant and our Gary Cooper and our Clark Gable all in the same package, means that he’ll accidentally entice some nonchoir members into the church.

Not that there’s anything sermon-like about Air, which is as nimble and effortless a film as director Jason Reitman has given us, though it’s closer in tone to his satirical 2005 feature debut Thank You for Smoking than to his 2007 bittersweet comedy Juno. (The script is by Reitman and Sheldon Turner [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Longest Yard], based on the novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] by Walter Kirn [Thumbsucker].) With its clever wit and easy dazzle, this is like the screwball comedies of old… if they were sad, too, under all the banter, and if they hadn’t been distractions from the last unraveling of America, in the Great Depression and the worst days of World War II, but had instead faced the unraveling full on. This is that most wonderful of rarities: a movie for grownups, one that doesn’t need fantasy to be transporting… and one that doesn’t need to couch its metaphors in make-believe to make them go down smoother. It acknowledges that we can face reality just fine, and laugh at it, and at ourselves, at the same time that we might let it drop a word or two of warning in our ear, too.

Because here we have Ryan Bingham. Ryan doesn’t care so much for the Ikea furniture that haunted Fight Club’s Jack, presumably, because he mostly lives out of business-class airport lounges and the kind of hotels that are attached to convention centers: it’s a life of imitation luxury, bland and corporate and cheap and cold under the pretense of hominess. (When we do finally visit his tiny studio apartment, which he inhabits only a few weeks out of the year, it’s barely distinguishable from a room in one of those personality-free suit-and-tie pitstops.) But Ryan loves him his loyalty-program membership cards and his frequent flyer miles — his life is lived as if he were in a suave TV commercial for the “simulated hospitality” (as another character terms it) for the nonstop, on-the-go, busy-busy-busy life of an Important Suit with People to See and Business to Conduct. He looks great, all the time — because he’s George Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare at Goats), of course — and he really does love the swipe swipe swipe of credit cards and rental-car points cards and hotel key cards. They slip through electronic readers and instruct service employees on how to fake being happy to see him, which is fine with him, because he’s gone before any real connection — and any real like or love or even hate — can develop. He’s happy with this life.

Ryan is Jack’s smirking nonrevenge.

Ryan loves the phoniness of what passes for community and comfort in his life; he actively embraces it. He’s horrified at the prospect of having his day not be defined by airline schedules and hotel checkout times, which is what happens when he gets pulled off the road. His company, see, is bringing the work in-house… and the work is firing people. Other companies outsource their layoffs to Ryan’s company, and he shows up with a “strategy packet” and a faux-sympathetic smile and impersonal prepared patter to tell total strangers that they no longer have the job they’ve been busting their asses at for years. (All the rage that gets directed at Ryan — some of it by nonactors who actually have been laid off from their jobs and are expressing genuine fury — is the howling powerlessnes of our day.) But now, hotshot Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick: New Moon) has come up with a way for Ryan’s company to do it all over Internet video conferencing.

The irony! Ryan is on the receiving end of the shit he usually shovels: oh, he’s not gonna lose his job, but he might as well, for the pain this causes him. Not travel? How will he hit, on his frequent flyer tally, that magic secret number he has in mind? The miles issue is the sour heart of Up in the Air — the miles themselves are merely a way of keeping score for Ryan; they are meaningless in themselves, as far as he’s concerned, and he is not at all interested in what they could do for him (like take him on a tropical vacation).

Who is Ryan keeping score against? That’s a good question. Ryan himself doesn’t seem to know, or to care. Perhaps it’s against the likes of fellow road warrior Alex Goran (played by the irreplaceable Vera Farmiga: Orphan, Nothing But the Truth). “Think of me as you, with a vagina,” she tells him, after their sexy-smart meet-cute, when they’ve begun hooking up whenever their paths cross at airports. She really is very much like him, in fact, which works just fine until who he is begins to change… maybe…

Unfortunately for Ryan, he’s been too good at eveything he does, from firing people to racking up miles to his side gig as a motivational speaker, wherein he “inspires” people to give up everything that makes them human, especially their relationships. He’s helped create a heartless world in which no one can rely on anyone else, for anything. What happens when the man who prefers fake airline-hotel-rental car loyalty to the real thing suddenly starts to wonder about the wisdom of that? Is it too late for him to change? How do you get off a merry-go-round when you’re no longer enjoying the ride? What if the merry-go-round doesn’t want to stop for you?

It won’t be fun or simple, that’s for sure.

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watch at home

MPAA: rated R for language and some sexual content

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
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