[I'm going to toss out my usual rule about avoiding spoilers because, with this film, there's just too much to talk about and, with this director, I don't think that anyone who has seen his other films will be terribly surprised by anything that may be revealed in this post.]
There's a well-worn stereotype of our modern life that paints it as ultimately vacuous, disconnected, lonely and quietly desperate. For all of the social networking and up-to-the-minute information gathering and easy globetrotting at our disposal, we don't really connect in meaningful ways with other human beings around us. Clooney's character in Up in the Air (Ryan Bingham) is the very living, breathing confirmation of this suspicion. At the beginning of the film, we see the preternatural ability with which Bingham has mastered the art of travel. He packs his carry-on suitcase with the precision of a scientist, he navigates the minefield of airport security checks with ease and aplomb, he carries in his wallet every possible "perks" card, which he has dutifully earned by being a loyal customer of airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, restaurants. He is efficient, professional, almost affectless in the execution of his routines. The airports, the hotels, the skies are his "home." In the voiceover narration, Bingham tells us: "Anyone who has flown with me has known me." And he appears to mean it.
But, think of that. What is the longest one is ever on a domestic flight? Six hours, tops? What does it mean to say that the people who really "know" you have had that little time with you? Bingham's self-description is further confirmed when the film lets us peek in on his sideline occupation as a "motivational" speaker. In his lectures, entitled "What's In Your Backpack?", Bingham asks his audience to imagine all of the things that matter to them, and to imagine putting all of those things into a backpack. First, we pack in the "stuff" of our lives: knick-knacks, furtniture, cars and homes, all the possessions that we value. Then, we pack in people: co-workers, friends, children and spouses. The backpack gets heavier. Bingham asks his audience if they can feel the straps of their backpacks cutting into their shoulders, burdening them in ways that make it almsot impossible to move forward. Something has to give... but what? Bingham advises:
Your relationships are the heaviest components in your life... We weigh ourselves down until we can't move... The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake. Moving is living.
Because George Clooney plays Bingham and because, well, he's Goerge Clooney, there's something undeniably seductive about his no-attachments and no-baggage advice. (An aside: I highly recomment AnPan's recent post on the merits and demerits of "advice." Read it.) But it wouldn't really be a Reitman film if it didn't call into question our simultaneous attraction-to and revulsion-towards the "up in the air" life. Of course, we all think, life would be so much easier-- perhaps even happier-- if we weren't weighed down by all of the responsibilities and obligations that our connections with other people demand. If only our connections with other people were like connecting flights... just momentary stop-overs on our way to somewhere else. But for Bingham, the perpetual traveller, there is no ultimate "somewhere else," no telos, no final destination. They're all connecting flights.
Of course, these endless connections-without-connection eventually wear on Bingham. Forced to travel with a young, naively romantic co-worker (Anna Kendrick) who is placed under his cynical tutelage for a few weeks, and after hooking-up with a fellow-business-traveller (Vera Farmiga) who somehow manages to touch something needy in him, and after traveling home to his sister's (Melanie Lynsky) wedding to discover that he knows his own family only as well as the airport check-in agents, Bingham is finally forced to realize that his heretofore "quiet" desperation is beginning to roar. And so he resolves to do it differently, to make a real connection.
Here's what I absolutely loved about this film. (And here comes the spoiler, so stop reading if you don't want to know.) Unlike the connection that we are shown at the end of Lost in Translation, elusive and ambiguous as it may have been, Up in the Air doesn't resolve the existential crisis for us. What we see in Bingham's too-late realization that he wants more, and his devastating realization that the person he thought he could get that "more" with already has it, is the sad but simple truth of all self-realizations:
Wishing doesn't make it so. In fact, wishing can't make it so.
There are years and years, miles and miles, of habits and beliefs and practices and connections and missed-connections that cannot be simply undone the moment one realizes they have been done badly. If we invest in the solitary life, the life unencumbered, we reap its risks just as surely as we reap its rewards. There are rewards, to be sure, but in the end, Bingham seems to realize that, perhaps, the risks have outweighed the rewards, despite his motivational message that eliminating "weight" is its own reward. And so we find him at the end of the film still alone, staring at an enormous airport screen that dwarfs him and his existential crisis, utterly indifferent to both. He doesn't win, but he doesn't die, in the film, because that's not how real life happens. Real life happens in those moments of quiet desperation, often left unresolved, that are never really "desperate" in the tragic or epic sense. They're just lonely, idiosyncratic, lost in translation... and ever en route to somewhere else.