By: Annikka Frostad-Thomas, Annie Robertson,
Rashida Ruddock, Gautam Sharma
According to its movie trailer, Up In the Air is a film that celebrates personal connections and relationships. Notorious bachelor George Clooney is pictured telling his friend that “life is better with company,” and we watch a series of sentimental images depicting happy-looking families and loved ones. Yet in the actual movie, this nicely clichéd message is not so straightforward. George Clooney’s character seems to transform from a detached bachelor figure to a family man, but he is still alone and unhappy at the end of the movie. Sure, there are some apparently happy couples, but more characters seem to discover personal fulfillment through the single life, or are unable to because of their suffocating relationships.
Reviews of Up In The Air reflect this same sense of ambiguity. While most critics gave the film positive reviews, comment sections of many popular reviews are replete with mentions of the film’s lack of point and resolution. One user summed up the negative feelings toward Up in the Air by responding to a New York Times Review with, “this is a shallow, insensitive film all about nothing” (nytimes.com). Another popular reviewer writes about our protagonist, “as he soars above the clouds we can gather that Ryan, now a changed man, is not completely resolved—he knows he wants something, he just doesn’t know exactly what that something is” (storyfanatic.com). If Ryan doesn’t know what he wants, certainly the audience doesn’t know either. Up in the Air’s message about the importance of family and friends is also contradicted by the idea of a “sensual pleasure of brand recognition” (guardian.co.uk). In the scene where Bingham first meets Alex, he is seen bragging about all the different types of cards he had for well-known hotels. It is clear that Bingham receives some enjoyment from all of the popular brands that he has acquired or with which has executive membership. However on the other hand, he is portrayed at times as needing a support system that will make him happier. Again, the viewer cannot be sure what exactly the moral of Up in the Air is.
So what is the point of the movie? Is there a lesson to be learned after all? While the film has no definitive resolution, it is not a fair characterization to say it is about nothing as our New York Times blogger suggests. Up in the Air may not offer the audience some lesson on morality or tell them how to live, but it does give a poignant, close study of lives in transition. Ryan Bingham, for example, is faced with change not only in his professional life when his luxury jet-setting lifestyle is threatened by technology, but also in his personal life when he is forced to reexamine his views about human interaction. Popular reviews agree, Bingham is fundamentally altered after he is forced to “confront the unsettling life transition change he burdens others with” (filmedge.net). Other minor characters also support this theme of life in transition. Young professional Natalie Keener sees her life plan collapse when her long-time boyfriend leaves her, Ryan’s love interest Alex lives a double life, and many of the characters fired by Ryan see their life’s structure crumple as well. Therefore, it may be that the film is simply a compilation of character studies. Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun Times summarized the film as “an observant look at how a man does a job.” Perhaps this is the point of the movie: an opportunity to witness a number of events in a man’s life and to take away from that what we will.
Thus the film may not offer a grandiose message about how to live life, but rather poses a question that each audience member must answer individually. According to ‘Movie Examiner’ Brandon Gaylor, “the film isn't so much about the characters' work; it's simply the backdrop to discussions on life choices and perceptions…It's a movie that leaves the viewer contemplating not just his or her own life, but life in general” (examiner.com). While it may be frustrating walking away from a movie feeling somewhat dissatisfied, perhaps this ambiguity is why the film has been so successful after all.