What do we want? Sometimes our life isn't enough to answer that question. We live day by day and we don't have the time. Ryan Bingham is asked, two times by the same person in Jason Reitman's "Up in the air": "What do you want?". He can't come with the answer. He travels through the world firing people for a living and doesn't have trouble sleeping; we hear his voice-in off saying the air is his home, the airports a reminder that everything's fine; we listen to his conferences that are all about leaving any luggage (literal and metaphorical) behind, and yet he seems unable to decide what he wants. He lives by a philosophy. And it appears that it's something he chose and defends, we can tell in conversations with the two women that get in the middle of his systemic, comfortable life. Well, not everything we choose is necessarily what we want.
Ryan Bingham is played by George Clooney as the kind of man you wouldn't want to mess with. It's not the most appropriate thing for his line of work, but Clooney has that ability to make us believe he's the best at what he does and that's what we think of Bingham: unstoppable, flawless, cold hearted man with a perfect smile
And classy too (you know, we're talking about George Clooney here). He did almost the same thing in "Michael Clayton", except for the smile. In fact, Bingham is so confident that he falls in love and is sure that everything will work out fine.
I think "Up in the air" is a very good movie because Reitman makes sure that we never leave that place. He presents a character and provides him with a 'turning point' that any Hollywood movie would end up in plain happiness –in fact, his own "Juno" did just that- and decides to put everything on hold. Every time Bingham is on the ground, whether it is for a family wedding or a job meeting, we can sense that the air is calling him. It's something the movie makes us feel with elements: a melancholic music filled with acoustic guitars, some looks from Bingham, some smiles that don't seem completely right. The trick is that this doesn't have to be something sad. It's just what it is.
We listen to the sound of backpacks closing, magnetic cards beeping, cell phones ringing. That's how it is in the air. A woman, Kate (Vera Farmiga) arrives and sounds like the perfect mate for that safe, suspended life. She seems to share Ryan's philosophy. Then another woman, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), younger, impulsive and willing to learn, sounds like cheap psychology –she has a major in psychology- and promotes, with and without intention (because she's young and impulsive) a version of a "real" life, the life of married couples and kids; the life that seems planned out; the life Mark Loring was so scared of and the life that more than one character in this film don't feel prepared for
Yet the life every man and woman that Ryan fires treasure.
The contradiction is obvious, and it's Ryan's "turning point". But the characters in Reitman's films are never obvious. They are smart, quirky, sometimes weird people capable of resolving contradictions. The script by the director and Sheldon Turner, based on a Walter Kim novel, is insightful and powerfully dramatic without any melodrama. The employees getting fired suffer and speak the truth, we listen to every one of their words and we empathize.
But we empathize with Ryan too, because we can see him wondering. The conversations he shares with Karen on one hand, the (mostly) discussions he has with Natalie on the other, and one particular three-way talk about life and love, are the moments the movie needs us to pay attention the most. The moments without music, the moments in which Ryan hardly says something that doesn't belong to his philosophy, but at the same time the moments in which he thinks or, at least, he's left with something to think about. We can see it in his eyes, even though the conviction of the performances by Kendrick and Farmiga help to generate this effect (performances that, if anything, confirm Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner should have had more chances in the Awards period with "Juno").
Does Ryan need a second chance? Does he deserve it? Of course "Up in the air" offers more questions than answers, and I don't think that the journey of its main character has anything to do with redemption. With the risk of analyzing something that might not even be suggested by the movie, I think that Ryan Bingham's journey ends once he finds out what he wants. There are a couple of scenes that show people truly delighted and joyful when thinking about the things they want. One involves the perfect J.K. Simmons; and the other one a map of the world with a lot of photographs. I've always believed the world would be different if everyone did what they wanted because I've always known that it's not what happens most of the time. I don't know if it would be a better world, but different
Different is good.
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