“Up in the Air” is a smart film and in my book it is the movie of the year. Containing elements of both comedy and tragedy, it possesses a tart underside and its message about relationships, intimacy and our need to connect with people on a deep and meaningful level is especially important in our ever-increasing technological and superficial culture.
“Up in the Air” is George Clooney’s best hour on the big screen (although I wondered at times how autobiographical the film actually was in nature). His character, Ryan Bingham spends his life flying from city to city (on American Airlines) and living in hotels (Hiltons). His task: firing people from their jobs when corporations downsize and he is masterful at his craft. Knowing he’ll never see these people again frees him to be as blunt or caring as each situation requires. Bingham has no real friends – he is neither known by others truly know anyone. He champions this life with no connections; in his mind it frees him to truly live, because “life is about moving.” Bingham is so certain of his philosophy that he even does motivational seminars on how to simplify life. Later in the film, Bingham’s sister refers to this mode of living as a “cocoon of self banishment.”
Bingham’s corporate seminar motivational talks are based upon a simple backpack analogy. He invites participants to imagine loading up their backpacks with all the things they have in their lives—their possessions, their homes, their relationships – “feel the weight of that bag. This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. The slower we move, the faster we die; make no mistake, moving is living,” Ryan exhorts the expectant faces looking to him for that nugget of wisdom that will change their lives: “make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life.” True that! And Bingham instructs his listeners to divest themselves of anything and anyone that would weigh them down.
And yet Bingham’s life betrays his own philosophy. He fills his life with relationships hat reflect pseudo-intimacy. For instance, he is welcomed by name by airline employees—not because they know and care about him, but because of his frequent-flyer status card. His life goal is to reach ten million frequent flier miles (he’d be only the seventh to get there) and he imagines what life will be like when he reaches that lofty milestone. And in an ironic twist, when he reaches his goal, he discovers just how empty a dream it actually was.
The turning point in the film was a scene in which Bingham was called upon to leverage his skills as a motivational speaker. Placed in a very awkward personal situation, Bingham was asked to sell a cold-footed groom on the merits of marriage and the benefits of a meaningful relationship (notice what book the groom is reading during this scene – as Bingham says, “heavy stuff”). And yet somehow Bingham’s words seem to resonate with something deep inside himself, a place that has gone untouched for far too long.
I began this review by stating that “Up in the Air” is a smart film. It contains far fewer of the “Hollywoodisms” that ask us to suspend our imaginations and believe the unbelievable. It doesn’t neatly tie up all the storylines with happy endings. And as Bingham experiences both the joys and disappointments of real relationships and meaningful connections, he is finally freed to truly live.
As I watched the film, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes 4:8-12 came into my mind:
There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his to yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless— a miserable business! Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If they fall down, they can help each other up. But pity those who fall and have no one to help them up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Every one of us has a need deep to serve and be served, love and be loved, know and be known. We have been designed by our Creator to be deeply connected to one another. And in our day of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, the lure of pseudo-intimacy and superficial relationships is strong. “Up in the Air” contains a challenge to examine the place of relationships in our life and do what we can to truly live.