Up In The Air Shows Existential Angst Knows No Age Limit
Oscar nominations are right around the corner and believe it or not, there are actually contenders that don’t feature CGI’d alien species. One such veritable lock for at least a couple of nods is Up In The Air. The Jason Reitman film seems as if it’s going to focus on an odd-couple generational attitude clash on relationships, career and purpose, but instead ends up zeroing in on the universality and agelessness of existential angst.
George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. He’s at home only on the road and he glories in his baggage-free and sans attachment existence. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He meets his female match in sophisticated fellow corporate-jetsetter Alex, as played by Vera Farmiga. Anna Kendrick is Natalie, Clooney’s tag-along junior colleague trailing him across the country to learn firsthand the fine art of downsizing.
Natalie is so Gen Y it hurts, right down to her slightly too on-the-nose last name (Keener). She wows the boss with a new system for terminations via webcam, all big ideas and big talk, but without the slightest clue how to handle the volatile and often poignant human element involved in snatching away a stranger’s livelihood. When her boyfriend dumps her via text message (in letter-perfect text speak, natch), she is devastated. She passed up a job offer in San Francisco to follow him to Omaha, he had all of the qualities that any forward-thinking Millennial girl would want, she thought a proposal was imminent. As Natalie describes what she assumed her life would be like at 23 – married, at least one child, corner office, etc., the audience smiles indulgently right along with Ryan and Alex as we realize just what a mix of brazen ambition and youthful naivete this character is. But Up In The Air zigs where other movies would zag. It turns out that for all their no-strings-attached elan, Ryan and Alex are no more emotionally mature than the 23 year-old sniveling in front of them.
In a more pedestrian flick, Natalie would teach Ryan about the value of human connection and bonding (She does lecture him, he belatedly takes her advice, it ends badly.) and he would help her to see how classroom smarts aren’t always a match for real-world messiness (turns out his hands-off approach isn’t much of a match for it either). But Up In The Air isn’t a formulaic movie and the lessons aren’t so pat. In fact, if anyone is being schooled, it just might be the audience. We learn that being with someone is better than being alone, but even being with someone doesn’t guarantee happiness, it just might be all you get. We get a glimpse at the lengths people will go to to avoid having to face their true selves and acknowledge their own unspoken and unmet needs – Ryan’s devotion to his routinized and impersonalized nomadic lifestyle, Natalie’s willingness to detour her own career path to accommodate a relationship that only looked perfect on paper, Alex’s night-and-day home/business trip alter egos, even the confused and anguished speeches offered up by Ryan and Natalie’s firees in which they wonder what value they are to the world without a job description to cling to. Up In The Air wants us to realize that the question of who we are and what we want isn’t strictly the purview of youth; as we get older, we simply discover ever more nuanced and creative ways to avoid reckoning with it and/or reconciling it to the lives we actually lead.