Although the protagonist of Up in the Air is a man who flies across America firing people for a living, it is not a movie about losing your job or being unemployed. And although the plot is set in motion by his lifestyle (though probably not his livelihood) being threatened by a new, young recruit who puts forward a case for firing people by videophone, it is not really a movie about new technologies and their alienating effects either. One of the most fascinating things about Up in the Air, in fact, is all of the potential films one can see in it that it refuses to become.
In the movie's first phase, we learn about Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, through a blend of narration and dramatisation. As the image track cuts between luggage being zipped up and gliding with ease over airport floors, and a series of card swipes and polite but scripted exchanges with service personnel, Ryan tells us, 'Everything you probably hate about travelling are warm reminders that I'm home.'
In the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock made films about irresponsible males learning to become responsible. In Rear Window, Grace Kelly describes James Stewart as 'a tourist on an endless vacation'. He refuses to see her as a viable partner - until, that is, she crosses over into his fantasy world, and helps him solve a murder. In North by North West, Cary Grant plays Roger O Thornhill, an advertising man with two ex-wives who has to be torn out of his comfortable existence in order to become a hero worthy of our esteem. Cary Grant was fifty-four when he made North by North West. There's a witty scene in an auction where characters are subtly identified with lots; Grant is 'a lovely Aubusson settee, in excellent condition.' Clooney is pushing fifty (and seems to be getting better looking by the year), and a similar thing might be going on when a woman he meets in a bar tells him 'If a car has over twenty thousand miles, I don't drive it.' They exchange opinions about car rental firms, then they each put their cards on the table - that is, to compare their various loyalty scheme memberships. Making a conceit like this work, in terms of both plausibility and sympathy, is a tall order ('We're two people who get turned on by elite status: I think cheap is our starting point.'/'There's nothing cheap about loyalty.'). As with director Jason Reitman's previous movie, Juno, there is a brittle smartness about which one doesn't quite know how the film feels.
I did feel at times that the dialogue would have worked better on the page - or perhaps on a stage - than it did on the screen. But there are some magical moments too. When the movie first decisively breaks its very deliberately established pattern of businesslike exchanges (the first meeting between Clooney and what will turn out to be his love interest being a variation rather than an exception), the audience can share the relief of the new, young recruit who breaks down in the middle of a hotel lobby and wails 'My boyfriend left me!' There follows a very nicely scripted and performed scene between the three principals, where they discuss love and relationships. Natalie's soul-bearing about where she thought she would be now (aged twenty three) when she was sixteen (married, maybe with a kid, and a Grand Cherokee) and how her now-ex boyfriend 'fit the bill' ('white collar, grad school, six foot one, loves dogs, in finance - but outdoorsy - at the weekend...') manages to be incisive without being cruel. Similarly, later, Ryan is sent in to talk his sister's fiancee out of his cold feet, and is faced with an amusing and touching anxious splurge of milestones on the way to death: children, Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easter breaks, graduation, grandchildren, grave.
Visually, the film gets a fair amount of mileage out of the fact that a lot of places in America look the same from the air - and then once you get down on the ground the offices do too. There is also a very nice shot of Natalie surrounded by a roomful of empty office chairs. And the conceits that it builds into its plot are very smart. Ryan's goal is to clock up 10 million air miles - a feat achieved by only six other people. When Natalie is probing him about this, puzzled by the fact that Ryan is not interested in using the air miles, she opines that what a person with that many miles should do is show up at an airport and take their pick from the board. For their wedding, Ryan's sister and her fiancee have requested that their guests take a cardboard cutout of them, and photograph it/them in front of exciting locations, in lieu of a honeymoon they can't afford. As well as being a firer, Ryan is also a motivational speaker. 'What's in your backpack?' is his thing. (This also leads to a nice exchange between Ryan and Alex: 'You know about my backpack?'/'I googled you. It's what us modern girls do when we have a crush.') Ryan asks his listeners to imagine filling up their backpacks with all their possessions, and then all the people they know. He preaches travelling light ('Drink some gingko and let the photos burn.').
As one might expect, all these threads pay off. Ryan hits his 10 million mile target, but on the flight taking him away from Alex, and the moment feels meaningless. After taking Alex to his sister's wedding (and showing her around his school), Ryan flies across the country and steps up to deliver 'What's in your rucksack?' in a prestigious venue, but the words fall hollow, and we then get 'the run' to Chicago, to Alex's doorstep. After the wedding, Ryan calls the airline to get enough of his airmiles transferred to his sister and her husband to send them around the world. And the movie ends with Ryan looking up at the departures board.
But they do not weave together to form the ending one might have predicted. Alex, it turns out, is married. She barely hesitates before closing the door on Ryan when her husband asks who is there, leaving him standing in the snow. Although Ryan calls the airline to transfer the miles to his sister, the conversation is interrupted, and that is all we see or hear of it. Similarly, although he says he will call Natalie (who quits the firm by text message!), we only see her new employer reading the reference that Ryan wrote for her. Ryan has reached out, but has not been invited in. 'Where are you from?' asks the pilot who emerges from the cockpit and sits with Ryan to share a congratulatory drink. 'I'm from here,' he answers. At the end of the film, the only home he has to go to is that to which he laid claim at the beginning.
This is a surprising conclusion to what we would probably categorise as a romantic comedy, but it is true to the (very extreme) logic of Clooney's character, who, in Natalie's words, has created for himself a 'cocoon of self-banishment'. Families and intimacy are kept on the fringes of Up in the Air, spoken of rather than lived through. We only see Natalie's boyfriend from a distance, once, before he ends their relationship (by text message). The wedding of Ryan's sister is treated as a montage of smiles and dancing. Beforehand, Ryan reaches out to his sister, offering to give her away, but she already has someone (someone who has been supportive, and present, all along), and there is no suggestion that from now on the siblings will have a closer relationship.
Clooney's final words are a fitting end to a pretty good, and very interesting, movie:
Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they will sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over.