Up In The Air

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Up In The Air is about homelessness and our innate human desire to be home with family. Loosely based on Walter Kirn’s novel, the movie follows Ryan Binghan (George Clooney) crisscrossing the continent as a hired gun to fire employees whose employers are too timid to pull the trigger themselves. Ryan thrives on the road. When asked where he is from, he responds, I’m from here. He travels light and is detached of meaningful human contacts. When someone accuses him of living in isolation, he retorts, I’m surrounded.

Seemingly he is having fun doing what he does. To showcase his homeless joy, he frequents the motivational talk circuit. The speech and the prop are the same at every hotel conference room. He walks up to the podium with a backpack and talks about traveling light, with no roots, no meaningful relationships and no lasting commitment to bog him down. He confesses that relationships are the heaviest components in your backpack. To travel light, you have to discard everything, including relationships. His prized goal is to rack up ten million frequent flyer miles.

Then two women enter his homeless space and throw him off his delusional self confidence. While nursing a drink at an airport lounge, he spies Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) massaging her glass while waiting for her flight. They turn each other on bantering in corporate syntax with double entendres. A one night stand evolves into a vulnerable need to see each other more. They coordinate their travels to spend time together. Call me when you are lonely, she purrs while walking to her gate. Immediately he pleads, I’m lonely. Not unexpected, their chance encounter exposes his innate need for companionship.

The other woman is a fresh out of ivy league, MBA graduate who has been hired by Ryan’s company to maximize corporate efficiency. Natalie (Anna Kendrick) is as naively ferocious as she is meekly needy.  Ryan is assigned to take her on the road for a crash orientation. Reluctantly he plays along. Soon they nurture a paternal-child relationship where she questions everything Ryan lives for as he begins to question everything he believes in.

When his estranged sisters insist that Ryan come home to attend his younger sister’s wedding, on a whim, he drags Alex along to smooth the rough week’s end. While in his hometown, they revert back to their adolescence. They throw snowballs at building windows, break into his old high school and ransack its hallways, and sneak into a basketball game in the school gym. As if they regress into a teenager date. A family crisis demands Ryan’s hesitant attention. When he somehow manages to resolve the crisis, his older sister in gratitude declares, welcome home.

Up In The Air is fun to watch but not fun to digest. The script is clever and breezy but it hurts to laugh, or it hurts more if we don’t laugh. The tone is light but the textural layers are dark. Every one seem to talk in family vernaculars – roof over one’s head, having babies, making a home homey, coming home, having a wedding. But hardly any one has a family except those who are being fired. The intermittent images of fired employees lament their family’s well being scream that we all are in need of family to go home to.  At one point, Ryan blurs out, we’re not swans, we’re sharks. He’s in denial. In his detached self, he does look like a graceful swan gliding along from airport to airport. But underneath that quiet facade, his feet are frantically paddling to go home, settle down and find joy with the ones he loves.