On Travel and Loneliness: A Review of Up in the Air

Warning: Spoilers Ahead


Last night Jeff and I watched Up in the Air at a free outdoor film festival. The theme of this year’s festival is “in flight,” which is appropriate as you sit there and keep glimpsing and hearing planes taking off from nearby Reagan National Airport. Here’s my review of Up in the Air.

Up in the Air fits the bill as a meditation on traveling a lot and the impact it has on your life. The main character, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) is a traveling corporate downsizer – he fires people for a living. He travels for nearly every day of the year and feels most at home on planes and in hotels. He covets his elite status in several different rewards networks and his great life goal is to get 10 million miles with American Airlines.

Bingham starts out the film as a happy, carefree guy. He is never home and he has no family (long having been estranged from his siblings) but in no way is he lonely. He does meet a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems to share in his lifestyle and values. They start meeting up when possible and have what seems like a positive, mature, healthy relationship.

Bingham gets pulled back to his ‘home base’ of Omaha because the company has decided to start a new initiative. Young new hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has the idea to start doing the firings via Skype. Bingham argues that Natalie has no experience and needs to learn what it’s like on the road first, and his boss agrees and they travel together.

The movie can’t seem to decide whether it wants to play into Hollywood relationship tropes or subvert them. On the one hand, you have Natalie whose boyfriend leaves her, and you find out that she’s moved to Omaha to be with him and turned down better prospects. Putting your life on hold for a man is something Hollywood seems to approve of, but not in this film. Eventually Natalie leaves Omaha and goes to work at the place she would have wanted to, owning her own happiness and perhaps realizing that you don’t have to fit the mold of the American way to be successful or satisfied. And that’s great!

But on the other hand, there’s Bingham. He doesn’t end up happy. No, instead he starts to become disillusioned with his own happiness after attending his sister’s wedding and realizing how little he is connected to anyone in life. Then he achieves his goal of 10 million miles and seems underwhelmed by it, like it’s suddenly a wakeup call that he’s been wrong all along. He goes to get the girl, and it turns out that Alex is married with kids.

This part bothers me. Not because of the adultery aspect – though I’m not that positive about that – but because Alex is angry that Ryan shows up at her house. But he didn’t and couldn’t know that she had a family, and her reaction to that is “that’s my real life. You’re my escape.” Of course Bingham should be angry here. Who knows how he would feel about being the other man – maybe fine – but Alex took that choice away from him when she didn’t mention it right away. I find that rather deceptive.

In the end, Bingham is dissatisfied with his life but ends up back on the road anyway. So we have this movie that starts with a guy who loves to travel and rack up miles, and proceeds to break down his enjoyment of life and depict it as wrong and other.

But here’s the thing – there are many paths to happiness. I think the movie wanted to say people need other people, but Bingham pointed out himself that he was always surrounded by plenty of people to interact with – he didn’t ever have to be alone if he didn’t want to. I guess then, the movie was saying that if you’re constantly on the move you can’t ever have any true, lasting connections with people.

And that’s false. Sure, it can be hard to keep up close relationships when one person is stationary and the other is always on the move. But it can be done. Plus, there are other travelers who understand the lifestyle and appeal who can become close.

When we were on the road, we weren’t lonely. We had each other, and we were meeting new people all the time. We kept up with our friends back home too. Sure it sometimes felt we missed out, but for the most part we were happy. Eventually we realized it wasn’t the lifestyle for us and we were ready to come back home.

But what this movie doesn’t seem to want to recognize is that for some people, it is the right lifestyle. You don’t have to have a traditional-looking life to be happy. And so for us, while entertaining, Up in the Air failed. Perhaps if we’d read the tagline, “the story of a man ready to make a connection,” we could have predicted that.

Have you seen Up in the Air? What did you think?

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