Sunday, May 27, 2012

Up in the Air (2009)

Ryan Bingham is like an inverse Willy Loman. He still has his job. It's not obsolete. In fact, in these economic times, maybe his job is more pertinent than ever, but he's going through a crisis that's similar to Willy's. Time passed Willy by. It's finally caught up to Ryan.

Ryan flies around the country firing people for a living. Companies bring him in to do it. An outside, impersonal source to handle a situation that no one actually close to it really wants to touch. Ryan has pat speeches and lines to hand the people who find that they're suddenly out of work. When we see him do it, we think he is mechanical, cold, charming, dispassionate. Processing people with the same efficient finesse that he maneuvers through airport security. He's done it so often, he's made it an art. And it fulfills him. His goal in life is to earn 10 million flying miles in the American Airlines loyalty program and learning how to use his company's expense account to maximize his airline points gives him as much pleasure as human milestones (birth, marriage, anniversaries) give other people.

Yet, we slowly see that Ryan's not all that he seems. He's more. Sure he wants to avoid his sister's call and is annoyed when she catches him on the phone to ask him to take pictures of his travels, as part of a wedding game their younger sister has concocted. She's getting married and has prepared a cutout photo of herself and her fiance for their loved ones to use to take mock photos of the couple in different locatons across the globe. Ryan doesn't see the point of photographing replicas of the couple in places they will never get to visit. He thinks photos are for people who don't have memories. He actually GOES to all of the locations. He doesn't need fake pictures of himself there. Of course, Ryan's inevitable epiphany is a predictable one. By constantly traveling, he isn't experiencing life, certainly not more than his sister and her betrothed are, who may never set foot outside of Northern Wisconsin.

Although the movie does take Ryan through the expected transition as he "realizes" how empty his world really is, watching him with that cutout of his sister and her boyfriend tells us that he was never really that much of an automaton to begin with. He packs his suitcase with precision. Traveling light to get through the airport faster. Cutting out all excess and -- you'd think -- emotion. But when he stuffs that oversized cutout into his carryon, however inconvenient taking it with him is, we learn something. He dutifully takes pictures of the cutout just as his sister asked. When the cutout falls in the water, he falls in himself, trying to fish it out. Back at the hotel, he blow drys the damp cardboard, repairing the damage. His oldest sister, Kara, described him as hating to do anything for anyone except himself, but that's not what we see. Maybe he's just better at dealing with the cutouts than with their real life counterparts.

Ryan meets another traveler in a hotel bar. Alex "only" racks up 60,000 miles a year flying on business and she and Ryan compare hotels and rental car companies. She's impressed by his priority club status that is so much higher than her own. He doesn't tell her about his 10 million mile goal. Although she would seem sure to approve, even envy, it. Maybe he doesn't want to brag. Or maybe he senses that since she has so many fewer points than he does, she's more tied to the world she travels through than he and might be put off by the thought of 10 million air miles. He doesn't call her as promised after their first rendezvous and he explains to her that he didn't know if it was appropriate. She assures him that he doesn't have to worry about what's "appropriate" with her. She is just like him, only with a vagina. If he wants to call her he should. She lets him know that she's not going to expect any more of a commitment than he would and that has the effect of making him feel freer to . . . commit.

He returns to the home office in Omaha. He was on the road for 322 days last year and that meant he had to spend 41 MISERABLE days at home. We see his barren apartment. Sparsely furnished. Undecorated. Less homey than the Hilton line of hotels he stays in. A neighbor comes to deliver a package she's been keeping for him. He asks her to come over that evening. She says she's dating someone now. Guess he'll be spending the night alone at "home."

At the office he learns that there might be many more such nights. They are trying a new system created by ingenue Natalie Keener, a new employee. They fire people through teleconferencing, saving the company vast amounts of money in travel costs. Ryan is being grounded, taken out of the air, to sit behind a desk and computer screen and fire people from a distance. His objections at the coldness of this approach ring phony, since he was never that warm when he terminated his victims in person anyway. He never related to the strangers in pain on a personal level. When they cried or became enraged, he responded by deflty handing them a pamphlet and telling them all the answers were inside, smug in the fact that once he got them to leave the room, he'd never have to see that person again. So, when he argues that firing them via tv screen is heartless and doesn't take their unexpected reactions into consideration, his words smack of hypocrisy. But then he takes Natalie on the road with him, to show her why her video-conference firings will never work in the real world and we begin to see the compassion behind Ryan's coolness.

He may use stock phrases to respond to the pain people express when they learn they're being fired, but he originated those phrases. Other people copied them from him. We begin to see that they may have originated from Ryan's genuine concern. He tells Natalie not to apologize and when they tell employees they're being let go and not to say that she knows how they feel, because her feelings don't matter compared to the person who is losing his/her job. Ryan knows that detachment can spare as much pain as it relieves. Suddenly, when Ryan equates joblessness with freedom, there's a suggestion that he's actually trying to offer the fired person hope, a lifeline to grab, rather than just giving them a snow job. It doesn't really make his words any more useful to the person losing a paycheck, but we see that his intentions are more sympathetic than they appeared in the first segment of the film. When they get to Detroit and Ryan's boss tells him that they're going to fire people there via video, Ryan resists. He says Detroit is harder, because they've been through so much and the employees there should get hands-on treatment. With those words, we see that Ryan likes his job because he cares about things other than his airline points.

As Ryan begins to look more human, Natalie remains a caricature. She was introduced as the new girl, full of ideas, but no real world experience. And ends the same way. Perky, shrill, green and judgmental. She wants to fire people by video herself, and scoffs when Ryan takes time out to photograph the cardboard cut out of his sister. Yet, she lectures Ryan about not having a heart. She envisioned a picket fence marriage for herself by the age of 23 and thinks Alex and Ryan have failed somehow because they haven't achieved it. Yet, her boyfriend dumps her in a text message, while Alex and Ryan seem to be finding true contentment in their "no strings" relationship. She's no happier chasing the partner that she's "supposed" to have by this time in her life than Ryan is never having seen the point in looking for one. She may be rooted, but she's far less grounded and giving emotionally than Ryan is. Maybe he sees no point in marriage or children, but he wouldn't have devised a Skype system for firing people, as she did.

That's why the end is rather a letdown. As Ryan sees Alex off at the airport, she casually tells him to call her if he gets lonely. He says, "I'm lonely," before she moves even two steps further to the gate. She laughs, thinking it's a joke. It's not. In the middle of one of his patented speeches when he usually advises people to cut the ties that bind them and travel light and fast, like a shark as opposed to a swan who mates for life, Ryan is suddenly struck dumb. He leaves the seminar and catches the first flight he can find to Chicago where Alex lives. He's in such a hurry to be with her that he forgets his usual protocol, fumbling at the Hertz depot, forgetting his credit card, moves that he usually practiced blindly. He gets to Alex's doorstep only to have her open it as woman of the house. She has children and a husband. Ryan leaves quickly, devastated. Later, he gets on a plane and is surprised by the announcement that he has racked up 10,000,000 miles. The flight crew serenades him. He had anticipated and rehearsed this moment for years and now he doesn't even remember what he'd planned to say so many times, when he'd imagined it happening. Back at the office, he calls the airline and donates a million of his points to his sister and her new husband. He collected those points in lieu of family and now they mean nothing. It's rather a cliched revelation. Basically, it's the same "true meaning of life" that Ebenezer Scrooge eventually learned, but Ryan was never Scrooge. He was never cruel or uncaring. He never really had to evolve.

His sister married a man who invested all of their money in a real estate venture that promised families a home by catalog order, no better than the hotel rooms that Ryan regularly passed through. He gave Ryan a spiel about his business project that was rehearsed just like the speeches Ryan was paid to give at conventions. He even tries to sell Ryan one of the cookie cutter homes, but recognizing schtick when he hears it, Ryan doesn't fall. This same guy is prepared to dump Ryan's sister at the altar, until talked out of it. Because their money is tied up in his real estate scam they have no money for a honeymoon. That's why the sister was collecting cardboard cutout photos of herself in places she would never see. Ryan's life may have been empty, but it seemed more authentic and fulfilling than the one the newlywed couple would make for themselves. Ryan had more than Natalie did. And Alex . . . she had a family. She told Ryan they were her real world and he was just her escape. She invited him to call her if he felt like being a "grown up." Natalie told Alex that she wanted to look like her in 15 years. If Natalie doesn't change her direction, that's exactly how she will look. She'll have all of the traditional accoutrements, home, spouse, 2.5 children, long-haired dog, everything that you're supposed to have attained by that point in your life, but without the happiness that you'd expect to come with it.

They all seem worse off than Ryan, not better. Sure, maybe he avoided involvement because he was afraid of getting hurt, but it also kept him from hurting others like Alex, Natalie's boyfriend and his sister's fiance have done. So, why is Ryan the one left alone, more to the point, lonely at the end? Why are we left with the sense that he has failed, where none of them have succeeded? The sister's fiance explained to Ryan that he got cold feet about his wedding because he saw his whole future unfold. He would marry, grow old and die. What's the point? What's the point indeed. There is none, so Ryan shouldn't feel that he has missed it. In that sense, the movie was disappointment because Ryan seemed to have been put in the position of belatedly learning a lesson when, from my view, he was the only one who had it right all along.

Question: Wasn't sure why Ryan told his brother-in-law that he'd given up his one bedroom apartment when he actually hadn't. Perhaps he only did it to avoid investing in the brother-in-law's building scheme, but I believed him and thought it meant he had forfeited his only semblance of playing by the "normal" rules, or pretending he had or needed a home. He hadn't given that up after all.