Sunday, January 29, 2017

Up in the Air

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 2009 Oscar-nominated film had its inception before the 2008 Great Recession, but that event changed the tone and direction of this film directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, who gave us Ghostbusters, and who is a co-producer along with his son on this movie.
The film opens with Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” lyrics which suggest that the United States is supposed to be shared by all, but the current economic situation presents a different scenario, where many feel dispossessed. The big irony in this story is that the main character, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), works for a company that is booming, not despite the economic disaster, but because of it. Businesses that are downsizing and laying off tons of workers hire people like Ryan to do the firing for them. They are so cold and unconnected to their employees that they don’t even confront them personally at this most difficult time. And, as Ryan says, these bosses are “pussies” that “don’t have the balls to sack their own employees.” As Ryan’s boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), says to his employee, because the auto industry is tanking, “Christmas came early” for his fire-for-hire company. And, Craig inspires his troops by telling them, “retailers are down twenty per cent, auto industry is in a dump, the housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.” This motion picture is another one that presents us with an upside-down world. Here, capitalism has become so corrupted that many suffer, and those that prosper rejoice at that failure, and feed off of the economic carcass like opportunistic vultures.
Ryan’s life mirrors the topsy-turvy world in which he works by the place he calls home. While most people would consider a permanent house a place of solace, a sanctuary, Ryan has the opposite attitude. He feels most “at home” in the airports, and especially in the sky, flying from layoff city to layoff city. He says, “All the things you hate about traveling - the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I am home.” The company office where he works is in Omaha, Nebraska, and Ryan’s dislike of having to stay there for any length of time shows when he says, “Last year I spent 322 days on the road, which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.” When we do see his condo, it is austere, fittingly appearing as if nobody has been living there. Ryan gives motivational speeches using a backpack as a metaphor for the excess baggage people in the business world carry around, and which weigh them down, grounding them like a flightless airplane. He says, “Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.” And sharks are predators, attacking and feeding violently on others; they die if they don’t keep moving. Ryan, thus, sees a fixed home as a place that will kill him, and, so, he flies, putting distance between himself and any attachments to others.
It is, thus, expected that, when Craig calls him back to hear the company’s new proposed mode of operating the business without the need for traveling, Ryan is outraged. A new employee, a young woman, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), presents her idea of laying people off via the internet through teleconferencing. Ryan confronts Craig with the argument that, even though there is harshness in their work, at least by confronting those losing their jobs in person shows some dignity by including the in-person touch. He says that the inexperienced Natalie hasn’t a clue as to how to deal with the volatility on a case-by-case basis of each firing. Much to Ryan’s surprise, Craig sends Natalie on a mentoring journey with Ryan to cities to see how the firing sessions should be handled. Her online system of firing provides a buffer which relieves the hired gun from the anguish of the firing. But then her boyfriend dumps her in a short, brutal text. Ryan makes the comparison by saying it was like being fired over the internet. When asked if she loved her ex-companion, she talks as if her relationship was a job task when she says, “I could have made it work.” She then lists all of the items that made her boyfriend a good choice. Her speech sounds like what one would see on a spreadsheet.

Personally, Ryan wants to maintain a state of arrested development (the title of a series starring Jason Bateman). When teenagers are “grounded” they are cut off from having fun, and are restricted to the confines of the home. In the adolescent stage, the home can be a prison. And, the puberty period of a male youth lends itself to only wanting to indulge in self-pleasure, divorced from emotional entanglement with another. For this reason, Ryan feels happiest “up in the air,” a place of unattached liberty. Ironically, it is the much younger Natalie who calls Ryan on his selfish childishness, as she now feels the emotional sting of her boyfriend’s leaving, and witnesses up close the suffering of those that are losing their jobs, including one worker played by J. K. Simmons. (There is shot of Natalie sitting in an office surrounding by empty chairs, symbolizing all those who have been fired). When he talks about not being sold on marriage, he scoffs at love and says that despite having a spouse, everyone dies alone, and the failure of most marriages proves that they do not offer security. When he asks her if she has “that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet for a second,” she says “yes” and he counters with “Well, I don’t.” She says he is like a twelve-year-old, and when he talks about earning enough flying miles to have his name on a plane, she says, “Men get such hard-ons from putting their names on things. You guys don’t grow up. It’s like you need to pee on everything,” thus marking their territories like animals, not evolved humans.

Ryan’s selfishness only gets him material perks in the form of various traveling rewards. When his sister, Kara (Amy Morton), whom he calls the “glue” of his family, always involved in the interaction of its members, says, “You’re awfully isolated, the way you live,” he responds by saying, “Isolated? I’m surrounded.” Yes, but by strangers, not a true love, a friend, or family. His being “up in the air” means he is not “grounded” in the positive sense, of not having someone to rely on, provide sustaining comfort, and to whom he reaps the unselfish rewards of giving emotional sustenance to others. His sister, who is getting married, has little money, and asks that Ryan take pictures of a photo placard of her and her fiancĂ© in front of places he visits so she can have a virtual honeymoon. Ryan complains about this request showing no loyalty to his family, as we see a sign on the wall of the airport terminal which says, “We value your loyalty.” The loyalty Ryan has valued is impersonal and money-based.

A complication occurs in the entrance of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) into Ryan’s life (I wonder if her name might conjure up Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. More on that later). They meet, appropriately, in an airport bar. Their foreplay consists of rating car rental companies and commenting on each other’s rewards cards. She says that one hotel gives you cookies, and that she is a “sucker for synthetic hospitality,” which is all one gets, a hint of the real thing, when it is provided for a price, not given out of sincerity. When Ryan says that he hopes their comparing travel perks doesn’t cheapen their getting to know each other, she says that when you’re comparing elitism, cheap is a “starting point.” They know who they are, and feel that it is okay for them. There is nothing of meaningful substance in their conversation. But, there is humor and chemistry, and they spend the night together. It is noteworthy that when they go to Ryan’s hotel room, he has so many cards, he’s not sure which one opens the door, thus emphasizing his detachment from any place he can call home. Their relationship is “casual” as Ryan describes it, and Alex even reassures him that he doesn’t have to worry about her feelings when she says that he should think of her as someone like himself, “only with a vagina.” Even in their recreational time together, they crash another corporate party, illustrating that they live off of others, just as Ryan and Natalie’s salaries draw from the receding economic well of others.

But, in spite of himself, Ryan becomes attached to Alex. At first, they work out their schedules so that they can see each other as long as it coincides with work. But then Ryan asks Alex if she will accompany him to the wedding of his sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey). He says for once he doesn’t want to be that guy alone at the bar. He wants to have a dance partner, have a plus-one. The lip-service that he has been giving about the compassionate part of his job, of telling people that anyone who has started an empire or changed the world had to first suffer a loss, and taking people at a time when they are most “fragile” and helping them move forward, may be rubbing off on him. He volunteers to walk Julie down the aisle, but finds out that it is already taken care of. Julie’s future husband, Jim (Danny McBride) tells Ryan about his real estate investment. His words echo the Woody Guthrie song, and contrasts with Ryan’s lifestyle, when he says, “We all need a place to call our own. This is America. It’s what we were promised.” The film is saying that, unfortunately, the country has not lived up to that promise. 
Ryan is now caught between two worlds. When he checks into the hotel in Wisconsin for the wedding, he calls the wedding program a “packet,” which is the word that he uses for the information folder he hands to those he is firing. Hi sister, Kara, has just separated from her husband, adding another statistic to Ryan’s belief that marriages do not offer security. But, he enjoys taking Alex around his hometown, and visiting the school he attended. He seems to be reconnecting with the place he once called home, and also with his family. When Jim gets cold feet, he is the one Kara asks to convince the reluctant groom to go through with the nuptials. Jim voices the fears of many when he looks ahead and only sees a passage of time that ends in death. Ryan admits that marriage is difficult, and there isn’t some universal point to it all. But, he asks Jim, “the most important moments in your life … were you alone?” Jim realizes, as does Ryan as he says these words, that it is better to share life with someone. Ryan’s next words are significant, because he tells Jim, in life, you need a “co-pilot.” So, the man who has been flying solo now understands that is it better to have a fellow traveler on the journey. After he convinces Jim to go to the marriage ceremony, it is fitting that his sister, Kara, says to Ryan, “Welcome home.” He has joined emotionally with his family. The scene hearkens back to the beginning of the film when one of the men who lost his job says that his family consisted of people he worked with, and leaving them made him feel like he was about to die. In a way, Ryan, who was already dead to his family, has been resurrected.
When Ryan returns to the office, he discovers that a woman, who Natalie had fired on the road, followed through with the promise of killing herself by jumping off of a bridge. Natalie is so shaken that she quits, texting Craig, who ironically complains about the method used by Natalie’s boyfriend, since Craig was willing to fire people electronically. She goes to San Francisco which is where she was originally headed, and gets a job with the help of a recommendation from Ryan. Will Natalie marry herself to her job and give up on relationships after her break-up, or be able to find a “co-pilot” after quitting the unsavory work in which she was briefly employed?

Ryan leaves in the middle of one of his speeches about emptying the backpack, not believing in the words anymore. He needs to be with Alex, and makes a trip to her hometown of Chicago without any business agenda attached. Maybe we should have seen omens earlier, such as when the lights went out on the party boat after Ryan says he is now looking at what to put back in the backpack, or when Alex said she hoped Ryan wasn’t changing. There is a reason why she said she couldn’t behave at home the way she was with Ryan. When Ryan arrives at Alex’s house, he finds it is a home, with children and a husband behind the half-open door. He flees, and later has a phone conversation with her. At least he was honest with her. She has been a deception, pretending that she was just like Ryan. She has no sympathy for him or remorse for being misleading. She says he almost “screwed things up. That’s my family. That’s my real life.” In a way, she is the opposite of the Alex in Fatal Attraction: this Alex is the married person selfishly cheating on the spouse. She wants both the freedom of the road (or sky here) and the security of the family home. To her, Ryan was an “escape” from her being “grounded.” She calls Ryan a “parenthesis,” something that is self-contained, limited, not material for a long story.
Craig says there has been a hold on rolling out the teleconferencing layoff program. He needs Ryan “up in the air” again. Natalie said he should use his frequent flyer points to actually travel somewhere, enjoy what the rewards stand for, not just accumulate them. He goes one step further – he gives his sister enough of them to travel around the world on a honeymoon. He now values the loyalty of family. But, after reaching ten million miles he is asked by Chief Pilot Maynard Finch (Sam Elliott), where he is from. He says “I’m from here,” that is, in the sky. At the end of the film he is at another airport, and the movie ends as it started, with Ryan in a plane. Will he ever land and find a permanent home, or will he continue to pass over the homes of others, his “wingtip passing over?”

The next film is Bicycle Thieves.

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