Navigating the Turbulence of “Up in the Air”

March 22, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 12 8 min read

The following contains a spoiler.  If you have not seen the film Up in the Air but intend to, consider bookmarking this piece for later. Your comments, post-film-viewing, will be most welcome. If you don’t plan to see it, read on; there is enough plot summary here to ground you (so to speak).

covercoverThe buzz about Up in the Air (based on the novel by Walter Kirn) — the latest George Clooney vehicle, directed by Jason Reitman, nominated for six Oscars, and winner of the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay — is, in my opinion, well-deserved.  Consistently, I was told by friends who’d seen it (and who knew me well enough to recognize this as a selling point) that it was “dark.”  A few times, I was told (even better) that it was “unexpectedly dark.”  The latter description refers to perhaps the most buzz-worthy element of the film, namely its soul-stabbing twist, which occurs toward the end of the film and about which, as far as I can tell, not much has been written; and for obvious reasons: the professional reviewer is obliged to stay clear of spoilers.

Two weeks past Oscar-mania, I am thinking perhaps we are now in a relatively safe zone to delve in to this aspect of Up in the Air.  And there is much to delve into.  If you ascribe to the notion that, more than anything, great art disturbs, Reitman has indeed crafted something lasting.  For me, the notorious twist was both dark and unexpected, it burrowed and bothered more than the other grim happenings of the film – it effected both resonance and residue, and well after the viewing.

Meet Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a “termination specialist” and sometimes motivational speaker, based in Omaha.  His company is contracted by larger companies to execute downsizing, presumably because firing long-time employees requires special skill, but mostly because employers would rather keep their (manicured) hands from the messy business. The time period is now; or, say, nine months ago. “It is one of the worst times on record for America,” the slithery boss Craig (played by the delectable Jason Bateman) says. “This is our moment.”  Ryan flies around the country (322 flying days last year), descending upon an endless string of beige-carpeted corporate compounds, sitting through miserable meeting after miserable meeting.  But, he’s good at it.  “We are here to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to a point where hope is dimly visible,” he says to his young sidekick Natalie (Anna Kendrick), to whom he is showing the ropes, “then stop the boat, shove them in the water, and make them swim.”

What Ryan really likes about his job is the peripatetic lifestyle; home is in airports and in business class.  Home is an efficiently-packed rolling carry-on, “club” status at restaurants and rent-a-cars, mastering the art of passing through security seamlessly. Home is moving quickly, and, by extension, not getting entangled, physically or emotionally, with those pesky humans.  Home, for Ryan, is also generic and abstract.  “You’re awfully isolated, the way you live,” his sister says, in a voice tinged with the sarcasm of stating the obvious.  “Isolated?  I’m surrounded,” Ryan says.  The line vibrates with double-meaning – surrounded as in warmly embraced, or surrounded as in put your hands in the air?

Ryan’s mentoring of Natalie is no detour into altruism. Natalie is a whip smart, pointy-featured and pointy-voiced Cornell grad who has proposed the revolutionizing of Ryan’s business by migrating all terminations to video-conferencing.  “All for the price of a T-1 line,” she says, crisp and smug in her sensible suit and navy pumps, a playing-grown-up outfit for a 23 year-old who looks 17.  With his precious m.o. threatened, Ryan goes straight to the boss with his complaints that young Natalie may know the science but knows nothing of the art of their business; and consequently wins himself a mentee for the road.

You can see where this is going.  Ryan and Natalie clash and spar, but in an often humorous and endearing way.  Natalie is a couplehood enthusiast and sneers at Ryan’s commitment-aversion. Ryan is a seasoned in-person terminator who better understands the nuances of human fragility than know-it-all Natalie. Both characters have huge blind spots. They become intimate in that impersonal, colleagues-on-a-business-trip way, they teach each other things, sort of; they grow on each other.  And Kendrick masterfully portrays Natalie as a young woman so tightly wound and bound to her generation’s hyper-competence and control-freakiness that we actually believe she is on this whirlwind travel tour with George Clooney without a hint of sexual attraction between them.  “I don’t even think of him that way,” she says on the phone to her beau. “He’s old.”

Enter beautiful, sexually-carnivorous Alex (Vera Farmiga), another cavalier corporate traveler, whom Ryan meets at an airport bar– “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about,” she says. “Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.”  Periodic hotel-room romps ensue.  Natalie and Alex first meet – in a corporate hotel, of course, where Ryan and Alex have planned another rendez-vous – just as Natalie has received news, by text message, that her boyfriend wants to “C other people.”  She is crushed, all her plans upended (she’d followed said boyfriend to Omaha in hopes of a marriage proposal).  “I just don’t want to settle,” she says to Ryan and Alex, in a brilliant triangle scene where Natalie pours out her sweetly ridiculous hopes and dreams to the jaded (yet compassionate) old fogeys.  And here begins the emotional vulnerability segment of the film – where tough exteriors begin to crack and soften all around, and everyone starts to have a pretty good time.

So good, in fact, that we begin to think that Ryan and Alex may be heading for something special, that both may let down their guards and fulfill the conventions of domestic monogamy after all.  Natalie thinks so, too, and is horrified – her own deeply held desires to be mated to a handsome, monosyllabically-named, outdoorsy-on-the-weekends “co-pilot” at stake here – when Ryan begs off.  “How does it not even cross your mind that you might want to have a future with someone?  Don’t you think it’s worth giving her [Alex] a chance…at something real?  This woman comes along and somehow runs the gauntlet of your ridiculous life choice and comes out on the other end smiling, just so you can call her ‘casual’?… You’re a 12 year-old.”  Idealistic Natalie collapses her own desires and identity into Alex’s, defending her as more than a theoretical feminist forebear, almost like an actual mother figure.  The spirit of the rant is familiar:  We are women, and we deserve your eternal love and devotion, you commitment-phobe pigs.

And so, as Ryan begins to poke his toes, and then ultimately his whole head and heart, out from his “cocoon of self-banishment,” as Natalie puts it; when he does his 180-turn, his I-was-in-the-neighborhood romantic pivot (which triggered in me an “oh, please, not the epiphanic changed-by-a-woman scene” dread); we are even more flabbergasted to find Alex at the front door of her Chicago brownstone, in Lands End pullover and fleece clogs, with her rascally boys running up the stairs behind her.  “Who’s at the door, honey?” the faceless male voice says (definitely a monosyllabically-named voice, though; likely outdoorsy).  “No one,” she says, closing the door as Ryan backs away, his devastation and ours conflating in a guttural swirl.  “Just someone’s who’s lost.”

Ugh.  No fucking way.

I did not see it coming.  Ryan and Alex had been to Ryan’s sister’s wedding together in Wisconsin.  He’d shown her his high school classroom, the basketball team photos, the makeout stairwell.  They held hands when the bride and groom kissed.  They danced to cheesy wedding-band music.  “She’s a little too perfect, isn’t she?” I murmured to my viewing partner, who’d seen the movie previously.  “Hang on,” he said.

And still.  Didn’t see it coming.

Maybe it’s Natalie’s impassioned women-united defense that so expertly throws us off the scent.  At any rate, the film – which I’d been enjoying thus far as yet another showcase for George’s sharp and appealing Georgeness, well-matched by lead female actresses who “popped” in all their scenes – suddenly became, for me… All. About. These women.

Yes, as some have written, the film is an acute period piece; a sweeping, of-the-moment snapshot of near-depression middle America.  It is also, on some level, Reitman’s love letter to the nuclear family unit, being a new(ish) husband and father himself.  Perhaps I am meant to walk away from Up in the Air feeling mostly the chill of jobless despair, as manifest in the news delivered by Craig-the-boss that one of the people Natalie recently fired killed herself by jumping off a bridge. Or, maybe there is primarily a feel-good message to carry away, a plug for monogamous commitment/companionship and the cultivation of a meaningful home life – what Ryan has made a mission of avoiding but his sister Julie and new brother-in-law Jim embrace (to the tune of a cozy folk music soundtrack).  The doubling of these differently-pitched resonances in fact speaks to the strengths of a film that is decidedly about many things at once.

But while the employment-loss theme sparks our sober compassion, and the family togetherness theme tickles our romanticism, Alex’s Jeckyl and Hyde routine works at our minds and our emotions in a subtler, more complex way; the resonance there is progressive, it moves in stages – from shock, to outrage, to a more internalized discomfort, to quiet consideration, to… grief?  Who IS this Alex?  Is she supposed to be ME?  Or, for male viewers, is she MY wife?

With the hard hit of the twist, Natalie and Alex lock in as archetypes of women of two different generations. I found this discomfiting, as neither’s prospects for “something real” seems especially promising.  Alex’s remorselessness is chilling; in her subsequent phone conversation with Ryan, it is clear that in her own eyes she has done no wrong.  In fact, it is Ryan who should have known better, who read it wrong, who treaded outside his bounds.  “That’s my family.  That’s my real life,” she says.  “You are an escape…a parenthesis.”  She digs her heels in even further: “I’m a grown-up,” she states, by which she means, the way I’m operating is the way the adults do it. Grow up, and get on board.  On my second viewing, I looked for signs of regret or sorrow, for ambivalence in Alex’s response. I didn’t find any.  She is a mother lion, survival of the fittest, baby is something I could imagine her saying, and meaning.  In reflecting on her character, I couldn’t help but play out the hypothetical scene between her and Natalie, upon Natalie’s learning of the deception.  Ouch.  Ouch for Natalie, but also ouch for us; because we wouldn’t even be able to completely sympathize with Natalie, whose naivete about love and marriage seems almost as hopeless as Alex’s self-justifying fatalism.

In the DVD commentary, Jason Reitman talks about how Alex and Natalie are intended to be the same woman at different times in her life; in other words, Alex is who Natalie will be in 15 years.  The plot darkens.  Reitman also talks about writing certain scenes in consultation with his wife (and mentions his wife a few times during the commentary), which implies his efforts to empathize with the female conundrum, of career/family/romance clashing irreconcilably – the “identity crisis,” as Reitman puts it.  But his sensitive-male approach manifests ultimately in a zero-sum role swap, where Clooney’s Ryan shows confusion, desire, and vulnerability, and Farmiga’s Alex taps her metaphorical foot impatiently, waiting for Ryan to clue in to the simple solution of compartmentalization — i.e. the standby of the archetypical philandering male.  As a mother, Alex must ascribe to something like a “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” philosophy, which I don’t feel in a position to judge, but somehow disturbs me nonetheless.

Does this reversal work?  Does it ring true?  Is Alex a valid contemporary archetype?  Her nonchalance is what stays with me, a filmy residue I can’t quite wash off.  This is how we do it, this is what modern girls do, is what her character seems to declare on behalf of women in her station.  I can’t help but wonder if this mirror-swap structure is less a true depiction of our cultural moment, our confusion re: the dance of the genders; and more a well-meaning male writer-director’s projected fears about where we are headed in this respect.

To Mr. Reitman I say: I am one woman who hopes otherwise.  To my mind it has never been the hope or intention of progressive womanism for modern women to “become men” or to use traditionally male power tactics retributively. I think, I hope, we want more.  We want better, fuller, deeper.  Like Natalie, we don’t want to settle.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. Almost twenty years ago, Walter Kirn lived in a nearby Montana town. It was easy to observe him and his girl pal, which I did, and realized he needed a sledge hammer to open his mind regarding women. He’s so observant about men and so blind and dumb about women, like we’re all trying to “get” men to do or not do things, and we’re to blame for male unhappiness.

    There’s a lot of room for change in twenty years, but it sounds like he needs a different room.

  2. I think the question is less whether Alex represents “a valid contemporary archetype”, and more whether her arc is coherent within the bounds of her character. Even beyond this, if we were to read the film in terms of archetypes, I’d suggest that the very fact that the film plays off a subversion of audience expectations indicates a unification of male and female archetypes. That is to say, Alex embodies a potential latent in the trend towards excessive compartmentalisation (e.g. of career and personal life) that accompanies the ambition, the move towards overly specific self-determination, and the self-centredness that apparently characterise the notional “Gen-Y’er” (i.e. Natalie), but equally apply across genders and generations.

  3. I saw the movie, and thought it was a lighter version of “MIchael Clayton”, which really was a very dark movie. Perhaps it’s the decades of business travel under my belt, but it was kind of enjoyable to see that life portrayed so accurately.

    I think as well it is a very subversive movie, because it forces us to contemplate a person who has no real need for relationships, and isn’t all that sorry about it. I loved the fact that Clooney’s character never had a backstory that explain any of this. He’s just that way. This is subversive, because we live in an era where we have to be either desperately plotting to leave or enter a new relationship, and the greatest hell we can imagine is not to be in one. Oh, really? Is what the movie says to us.

    Oh, and I so saw the Vera Farmiga-is-married-with-kids thing waaaay in advance. Business travel is like one big slumber party, and everyone plays at being single when they’re on a trip. It was clear that was the set of rules she was playing by. The one false note in the movie is that Clooney actually fell for it.

  4. Niall, I’m impressed that you saw the twist coming! But don’t you think that Reitman intends for us to see Clooney’s m.o. as ultimately unfavorable, a little sad, as opposed to holding it up as a subversive model? I suppose each character’s m.o. is a bit sad, and in that sense Ryan’s life emerges as valid as any of the other characters; but certainly not in a “triumphant” way.

    Rob, interesting thoughts about compartmentalization (-isation, for Commonwealth readers/writers). I’m mostly with you, but there’s still something slightly off-pitch to me about portraying this cultural trend in a gender-irrespective way. I won’t try to make a nature/nurture argument about why women/mothers might approach these boxed boundaries differently from men/fathers, but it just didn’t quite ring true to me.

    Jill, I haven’t read the novel; but I believe the filmmakers liberally altered the story?

  5. I think that Up In the Air is about impossibility, and how to learn to accept its reality in your life. I don’t think Reitman is just setting up Clooney’s character as a loser, because then why would we be interested in him? He is someone who has consciously chosen an unconventional lifestyle, suffers a bit because of it, but could ultimately only be happy in that lifestyle. The counterpoint to this is the whole family wedding sequence, where he sees his relationship-oriented friends in the same boat.

    I think he comes across as more noble than the Vera Farmiga character, who is the typical bourgeois yuppie wanting to her cake and eat it to, and blaming anyone who calls her on that.

    Clooney’s character is just another, more modern, evolution of the kind of disconnected loners Clint Eastwood played earlier in his career. The movie goes to great lengths to show how all forms of connection we have been taught to depend on let us down: our jobs, our spouses and families, our dearly beloved routines, and how we have to accept this in order to move forward. A much more complicated POV than just condemning Clooney because he was too stupid to get married.

  6. I don’t see how Reitman could have intended for Alex to be an older version Natalie. In hindsight it’s clear who Alex has always been, when she talks about sleeping with a college professor, having sex in an airplane bathroom during a domestic daytime flight, etc. In other words, there’s no indication that Alex ever aspired to the family life, but just sort of fell into it one day when her boyfriend stopped taking no for an answer. Natalie, on the other hand, has devoted a sizable portion of her identity to finding a partner to share her life with, even relocating from San Fran to Omaha and foregoing a career opportunity in the process. I think Natalie will now focus on her self-realization (i.e., her career) until meeting someone who compliments her total self instead of contradicting it.

    I like your final statements about the potential “mirror-swap…of our cultural moment.” I was thinking about that a lot before seeing the film — but also before educating myself on the background of modern feminism. I had started to wonder if the original search for gender equality had somehow tipped the other way, with enough women seeking dominance or revenge to nullify whatever progress had been made. Betty Friedan based her entire argument in “The Feminine Mystique” on the idea that women faced a problem of identity, not sexuality. So Alex’s stance for “compartmentalization” doesn’t have much support. Whether Alex is at home with the family or “up in the air” having fun with Ryan, she’s still only living in her sexual role.

    Now the real question I have is, how did the point of feminism become so misconstrued? The quick and dirty answer is that we’ve all been brainwashed from birth to adjust to our sexual role, to submit to the status quo — though it’s perfectly clear that human beings are capable of so much more.

  7. This is a great essay on the movie. I did see the twist coming, if only because the sweet, fun wedding scenes came too early in the movie for that to be the ending. I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know something fishy is up when our hero makes the grand romantic gesture with more than 10 minutes left.

    I can’t help but wonder if this mirror-swap structure is less a true depiction of our cultural moment, our confusion re: the dance of the genders; and more a well-meaning male writer-director’s projected fears about where we are headed in this respect.

    This really struck a chord with me. Ryan is able to appear vulnerable in more subtle ways than Natalie (with Alex being a completely unvulnerable character). There really are three roles interacting and affecting each other, yet Ryan is the one the audience is supposed to empathize with, I think. Both women seem to be victims of their own short comings, yet with all his flaws I think we are supposed to see Ryan as a victim of circumstance more than anything.

  8. Sonya, you’re not guillible. You probably just haven’t done a lot of business travel. Most married people regress to singlehood when they’re staying at a Hilton in Omaha.

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