Up in the Air (2009)

Rated: R for language and some sexual content.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: ADA+A+=A
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $159 million (84 U.S., 75 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Jason Reitman (Juno and Thank You for Smoking)
Also Written by: Sheldon Turner (Longest Yard, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), based on the novel by Walter Kirn (Thumbsucker)
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick
With: Jason “I’m suddenly in every movie that gets made” Bateman, JK Simmons, and Sam Elliott

Ryan Bingham is an expert at terminating employment for companies who choose to downsize, and he spends virtually all of his life flying around the country. Rather than hating this, he actually prefers a life unburdened by either permanent relationships or possessions. But when his own lifestyle is put in jeopardy by teleconferencing and a new romance, he begins to question whether his life has been lived the right way.

Entertainment Value: A
The only thing I don’t like about Jason Reitman is the fact that he hasn’t written and directed more movies yet. I was actually excited to see on IMDB that he had films prior to Thank You for Smoking, but then I discovered they were all shorts, and I was extra bummed for having had my hopes raised before being dashed. The characters are fantastic. The dialogue is amazing. The plot and the acting are of course superb. But what Reitman manages to do is to almost effortlessly bring something to life, present it as charming, and then proceed to completely deconstruct it in the most lovingly brutal way possible.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence A, Language D
This is definitely not a movie for kids. The language is very F-heavy and the themes are clearly adult. One scene has a woman shown naked from behind and there is some sexual discussion, and several sexual references throughout. There is some casual drinking and one scene of people partying and getting drunk. R is the right rating here, but it’s a non-vulgar R, if that makes any sense. Older teenagers will be fine with it, and it might even be useful to watch with them…keep reading.

Significant Content: A+
Families and being invested in and attached to something meaningful are tremendously important things, truly human things. Individualism and aloof cynicism make a great fa├žade, but the most tragic thing of all would be to see someone who has actually made a life out of really believing in the ideas which the college existentialists eventually outgrow. Everybody needs a copilot.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
I suspect (worry) that a lot of people who watch this movie will completely miss the point of it. They will think that it is subversive of traditional values and the importance of people by seeming to hold up Bingham as a virtuous and happy man. That’s why I imagine some hearing my description of the significant content who have seen the movie may be stunned by how much it seems I’ve directly inverted the lessons of the movie. But like any great work of art, the movie is doing exactly the opposite of what a superficial viewing might think. This is a tragedy of Greek proportions as everything in his life turns out to be fool’s gold and yet he has no way out of the hole because he’s invested in digging it for too long. So, this movie is really taking the nihilistic individualism of our current culture and dissecting it down to its hollow core. It’s brilliantly cynical, which is why I worry some people won’t get the point. And I must say that this is precisely the sort of movie I want to say so much about but at the same time, I want to refrain for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. I’ll say that if you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to skip the questions until after you do so.

Discussion Questions:
~Although Bingham is often presented as the protagonist in this movie, is it possible that he is actually the enemy? If so, who is the real protagonist? Can a concept about life be the protagonist? Can a false life-concept be the villain? Is Bingham a victim here or the villain?
~The most obvious unasked question in this movie is, “What sort of person could do what Bingham does for a living?” Do you think he really believes he is helping people, or does he realize that he is soullessly manipulating them? Is he a liar? What is the movie telling us about him by assigning him this particular occupation as opposed to, say, a traditional sales position?
~Disillusionment is what happens when something we formerly cherished no longer seems appealing. Tragic disillusionment is when we find ourselves committed to such a thing. At the end of the movie, would you say Bingham is disillusioned? Tragically so? In what sense does he discover that he actually is in the most awful kind of committed relationship, married to a lifestyle so to speak? Would you say this movie represents poetic justice?
~Discuss some of the icons and metaphors Bingham uses to explain his lifestyle such as sharks and empty backpacks.
~Our society seems to be moving more and more toward depersonalized interaction (phone, teleconference, texting, email, etc.). What does this movie have to say about this trend? Consider some of the things communicated via text or the phone that would otherwise be considered intimate and needing of direct contact.
~To what degree would you say this movie is an endorsement of “flyover country?”
~A brilliant article about the group of people who obsess about their frequent-flier miles in Conde Nast Traveller magazine said, “Up in the Air is a cautionary tale about mistaking virtual contact for intimacy and loneliness for freedom.” Discuss this comment. Is he isolated or surrounded? Does he actually know people or does he merely have the illusion of community? Consider, for instance, that the counter agents are told by a machine to treat him in such a friendly but artificially particular way.
~Are possessions encumbering or meaningful? Are relationships encumbering or meaningful? What would a Christian have to say in response to the backpack speech?
~In what sense is Bingham’s pursuit of 10 million miles a project of pure idolatry?
~Would you say that Bingham is a pervert? Is his life a complete perversion of the entire purpose of being human?
~If Bingham represents one sort of grievous error, what do you think is being said by Natalie when she lists off her fantasy idealized notion of the perfect husband and family? Can family and relationships also be idols? What is the Christian solution to this problem?
~Someone might wonder whether Bingham is merely a byproduct of the corporation and corporate thinking. What if, instead, Binghman actually IS the corporation, put in a body and shown off as a contrast to real humanity? If so, is this movie an indictment of the idea of corporations as people? With the documentary “The Corporation” in mind, would you describe Bingham as a sociopath?
~A miser is someone who hoards for the purpose of hoarding with no ability to use the thing being hoarded. In what sense is Bingham a miser? Is he a miser of miles or of freedom or both?
~Do any of his actions at the end of the movie indicate he has been redeemed? Would you say he has repented? How might his ordinary activities from this point forward change?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Going to Alex’s house for the first time. When Alex realizes that Bingham actually has nothing outside of his travel and work, that he isn’t hiding a secret family somewhere, do you think she pities him? Why would this discovery render him truly pathetic to her?
~The confrontation on the pier.
~Meeting the chief pilot of the airlines.
~Finally getting the huge opportunity to deliver his backpack speech and then finding that he can’t say it anymore.
Overall Grade: A
A fantastic movie with lots and lots and lots of things to discuss about it. Six Academy Award nominations, all fully deserved.

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