“Up in the Air” and the Future of Work

“Up in the Air” (based on a Walter Kirn novel) is a curious, and possibly accidentally accurate, look at the emerging world of work. Reader Sean Lyng emailed me to point out that the movie touches every theme I’ve talked about in the Cloudworker series, and suggested that I blog about it. After watching it, I have to agree. The movie hits every theme I touched, and vice versa.  The overt thesis appears to be classed-up, schmaltzy community-values nostalgia, but the actual plot and characters are surprisingly true to the lonelier and starker realities of the evolving world of work and life. Whether or not the director, Jason Reitman, intended this (and intended the superficial thesis as satire), is debatable. So here’s the first-ever movie review analysis on ribbonfarm. I am avoiding spoilers, so my take is going to seem incomplete, but if you’ve seen the movie, you should be able to fill in the blanks, based on the ending.

The Plot

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a consultant who flies around the country laying off people for client companies. He logs over 300,000 miles a year, and spends over 300 days a year “up in the air.” The phrase is an update to “on the road” and this does not seem accidental, since the themes of rootless nomadism inform this movie as much as they did Kerouac’s beat epic. Visually, the movie is full of aerial equivalents of this sort of picture (this one is from one of the Cloudworker posts). At various stages, the imagery is used to evoke every emotion from awe and power to loneliness and depression.

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Bingham exults in his lifestyle, finding ironic meaning in accumulating platinum memberships all around, and referring to the airplane seat as his real home. Several times in the movie, when others accuse him of being self-exiled and checked out of civilization, he tosses back a “but I am always surrounded by people” line. Apparently none of his interlocutors are smart enough to get back at him with a “lonely in the crowd” line (unstoppably witty characters seem to be a thing with Reitman; nobody could match Ellen Page’s too-clever lines in Juno either).  Bingham has a sideline as a motivational speaker, a keynote called “What’s In Your Backpack?” The pitch is a justification for a life unencumbered by material or relationship baggage (he encourages his seminar attendees to imagine putting everything they own into a backpack, and then burning it, and to recognize the even greater burden of relationships). The motif recurs in other places. More on this piece of symbolism in a minute. The role is tailor-made for Clooney, as most reviewers have noted, and is in a sense an evolution of the bagman-fixer role he played in Michael Clayton.

There are three subplots in the movie, all involving women. The first begins when Bingham meets an apparent female soulmate, Alex (Vera Farmiga) living an equally detached frequent-flying up-in-the-air lifestyle. The second begins when Bingham’s world, and his justification for his lifestyle, are threatened. The threat is an eager new employee, Natalie, who sells Bingham’s boss on the idea of replacing expensive face-to-face layoffs with virtual, video-conference layoffs. Attempting to defend his way of work, Bingham talks himself into taking Natalie on his next up-in-the-air round. The last subplot involves Bingham’s two sisters, an older tired and exhausted sister who attempts to keep Bingham at least nominally connected to the family, and a younger sister who is engaged to be married to an impecunious suitor. This subplot involves Bingham carrying a cardboard cutout photograph of the engaged couple around on his travels, taking pictures of it against the backdrop of famous landmarks in the cities he visits (the couple, lacking the money for a honeymoon, is attempting to put together a cutesy photo-album).

Each of the subplots proceeds in an apparently stereotypical way. The first subplot evolves like a bad chick-flick, complete with Bingham leaving his motivational seminar in the middle, and rushing through the airport to catch a plane to see Alex. The second is a standard mentor-mentee subplot, as Natalie learns the realities of a lay-people-off business (occasionally sassing and scoring points off Bingham) and encounters a moral crisis towards the end. The last subplot, apparently the most cliched of all, involves Bingham facing up, through his sisters, to the rewards and challenges of a socially-connected life in a settled community, and realizing towards the end that despite his shark-nomad-backpack bravado, ultimately he too yearns for the same sense of connection and an escape from the loneliness that he has been denying. You cannot read too much into this “realization” though, or take it as a statement of the movie’s thesis, since the character of Bingham, despite being on the voice-over track, is not intended as a trustworthy custodian of the movie’s message.

The overall thesis represented by the three surface subplots is that ultimately, it is still the connected, communitarian life that matters; that the life of the jetsetting nomad, despite its sheen of elitism and ironic self-justification, is empty and meaningless. And yes, as a thesis, this is as as schmaltzy and maudlin as it sounds.

Here is where you will run into a problem reading the movie: the actual characters, setpiece episodes, and symbolic elements completely belie the overt narrative. Now, you could assume that the overt narrative is therefore satirical, but that too, is an inadmissible conclusion. Besides a couple of caricatured elements, the overt narrative is done with too much elegance and understatement to not represent a seriously-intended thesis. The thesis may be schmaltzy, but it appears seriously intended, which presents an interesting analysis problem.

So let’s see if the movie admits a dystopian, and more realistic reading.

The Dystopian Reading

If the schmaltzy thesis is “family and community values,” the dystopian thesis is that the connected, settled life is as empty as the nomadic life of Bingham. The support for this thesis lies in the situations of the women in the movie, who can be arranged on a spectrum of life stages, evolving from optimistic idealism and pragmatic early-marriage, through disillusionment with marriage and broken relationships. This pattern is too clearly relevant to be an accident. Events (or rather, the non-events, the non-closures) at the end of the movie show that the possible thesis “it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” is not justified either.

One one extreme of the spectrum of situations is Natalie, the young, fresh college-grad, who is looking for a ridiculously idealized Norman-Rockwell painting of an American Dream life. One of the few deliberate caricatures in the movie has her earnestly explaining her model of an ideal soulmate (it gets down to excruciating details like “drives a 4Runner and has a Labrador”). She describes this ideal after a tearful breakdown (triggered by her “I thought he was the one” boyfriend breaking up with her through a text message, while she is traveling with Bingham).

After the naive idealism of Natalie, we get the on-the-threshold-of-reality situation of Bingham’s slightly-stupid younger sister. Her life philosophy is at once archaic (a product of nostalgia for a vanishing ideal of marriage), and informed by financial realities and a clumsy yearning for a tantalizing, almost-accessible globalized world beyond her parochial one. This, she engages with depressing and unimaginative optimism (represented by her determination to have a world-tour honeymoon photo album, even if she can’t afford a honeymoon). The optimism is partly a product of the protective support and reality-shielding provided by the older sister and Bingham.

On her wedding day, her fiancee gets cold feet, and Bingham, clearly aware that he is walking validation of the fiancee’s stereotypical fears of commitment, and possibly responsible for his sudden yearning for the unencumbered lifestyle, still manages to talk him out of his fears. He does this by asking him a simple question, “are you alone during your happiest memories?” The introspection gets the cold-feet fiancee bought into the family agenda again. It is the sort of quasi-plausible psychological trickery that he uses when laying people off.

This is perhaps the turning point in Bingham’s character arc. Though he manages to solve the fiancee’s existential crisis while superficially preserving the logic of his own lifestyle,  and even though he’s pulled a fast one, the episode nevertheless appears to trigger a sense of loneliness that drives his behavior through the end of the movie.

The far extreme of the spectrum is represented by Bingham’s older sister, a tired, defeated shell of a woman, entering into a trial separation from her husband with grim decorum (her separation, symbolically, coincides with the younger sister’s wedding, and she begins it by moving into one of the hotel rooms reserved for the wedding guests).

The fourth woman in the picture, his apparent arm’s-length-soulmate Alex, also belongs on this rise-and-fall-of-relationships spectrum. In what is probably the best monologue in the movie, she responds to Natalie’s “ideal man” portrait with her own, a distilled hyper-realistic set of lowered expectations (hopefully taller than her, hair-on-head nice to have but not necessary, not a jerk, and “makes more money than me.”) To Natalie’s idealism-clouded eye, this sounds like a sad, depressing portrait of “settling.” Neither Bingham, nor Alex, can work up the creativity (or energy) to offer up anything more than a “when you are older” line. The monologue foreshadows later revelations about Alex’s place on the spectrum.

The realities of the situations of the four women aren’t the only cracks in the overt thesis of family and community values. Other cracks are revealed, with surprising gentleness, through the documentary-style scenes of the reactions of the laid-off extra characters (which cover the gamut from tearful to suicidal; angry to postal). Each, invariably, is on the settled/community side of the fence, and is devastated by the news, primarily due to the impact on family, children and community ties. Yet, by investing his canned (and legally necessary) HR termination script with some calibrated humanity (injected with detached objectivity), Bingham manages to genuinely soften the impact of his news. The result is that the laid-off characters reveal glimpses of the hidden dissatisfactions and the sense of being trapped by commitments. But Bingham’s solution is a band-aid that is just sufficient to humanize the actual layoff-meeting, and designed mainly to give him time to make a graceful exit, rather than actually help the laid-off worker.

Bingham’s backpack seminar is an extension and elaboration of his layoff process. A temporary motivational band-aid that has just enough substance so he can walk away with the seminar fees without getting lynched. It isn’t a joke though (compared to say, the 12-step program peddled by the Greg Kinnear character in Little Miss Sunshine). It is just credible enough to allow him to fool himself, so long as he keeps moving, without stopping to think.

When his own sudden longing for the life of commitments appears, his own untested philosophy fails him, and he reacts with a sort of regressive schoolboy romanticism, grasping at a dream more appropriate for 18-year-olds. Yet, this lack of self-awareness is not a lack of capacity for self-awareness, but a case of development arrested by necessary denials. You get the sense that Bingham could have been deeper, but was too clever and witty for his own good, and though he is too smart to believe his own backpack bs, it is nevertheless sufficient to prevent him from digging deeper into himself. Bingham is not the 12-year old Natalie accuses him of being. He just has his own denials, as those on the other side have theirs.

Finally, the symbolism in the movie is worth mentioning. The luggage/baggage motif repeatedly crops up. Besides his seminar, Bingham’s own luggage stars in a few bits of symbolism. In one bit, the near-ritualistic care with which he efficiently packs his luggage is disrupted by the cardboard cutout, which is just a little too large to fit. He ends up walking through airports, through the rest of the movie, with the head of the cutout poking out of the top of his roll-on bag. As with the rest of the movie, you are left wondering whether this is a random joke, or a symbol of the impending unraveling of his life philosophy. In the other interesting luggage-motif scene, he helps Natalie get rid of her clumsy, too-large luggage and replace it with an elegant roll-on. In the process, he casually throws away her neck pillow (“they have those on the plane”) and full-size pillow (aside, I’ve never quite understood why a certain kind of young American girl seems to carry her own pillow when traveling. Over-grown teddy-bear instincts perhaps?).

None of the character arcs end with closure. By the end of the movie, nobody has really grown any wiser. If you choose the dystopian reading of the movie, you are left with the feeling that the collision of Bingham’s world with those of the other characters’ simply leaves everyone with a greater awareness of the denials and delusions that they have had to choose, in support of their own life choices.  Each side is also more able to see the realities of the other side than their own. Nobody can actually do anything to change his or anybody else’s situation. The outcome reminded me of Hugh MacLeod’s fatalist line, “the price of being a sheep is boredom, the price of being a wolf is loneliness.” I’d substitute “desperate yearning for escape” for “boredom” though.

As for a verdict, I don’t have one. Perhaps Reitman intended the schmaltzy reading, the dystopian reading, or both. Juno too, with hindsight, had this schizophrenic quality.

I am inclined to the view that the schmaltzy reading was intended, and the dystopian one a subconscious accident.  I prefer the latter, since it seems more true to me. But then, I might be biased. While I don’t log 300,000 miles a year, virtual work and a more modest travel schedule put you into the same lifestyle, and there isn’t actually a lot you can do about it.

On a related note, I’ll be winging my way across from DC to San Jose for most of next week, logging my own frequent flyer and hotel points. If anybody would like to meet up on the evenings of the 19th or 20th somewhere in San Jose, email me.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Robert Simmons says:

    “By the end of the movie, nobody has really grown any wiser.”

    What about Natalie? We don’t know what happens to her romantically, but she seems to have grown up a bit, and moved her career in the direction that she wants it to go, rather than allowing it to float along.
    Also, I don’t think he’s fooled by the seminar speech, he just takes its implications too far. The speech is right, at least as much of it as we hear, and perhaps extrapolating a bit. Choose your commitments carefully, you don’t want to be weighed down by people, a job, a mortgage, etc., that aren’t worth it. Some people are worth it, a lot are not.

  2. Robert:

    I think Natalie’s reaction is just a visceral response to the suicide incident. There is no evidence that she has added a humanist/empathic dimension to her management philosophy. Rather than staying to make the layoff industry more human, she runs at the first sign that life can be hard.

    As you say, there is no evidence that her views on personal life have changed (she is probably still looking for that laundry-list guy).

    Venkat

  3. At the end of the movie, I thought the main character became a counselor for people who got fired (when you see the workers talking about how they coped after the event), and thought that was a good ending.

    He wasn’t, and that left me disappointed, because the movie is still interesting, but ambiguous as to what impact it wanted to leave the viewers with (in the similar way you posted as having apparently conflicting messages).

  4. Venkat,

    I agree with you about the movie on different levels. Typically, I watch a movie of this sort at least 4 times to get the subtlety, sometimes it is so nuanced it escapes you. I am yet to watch it a second time.

    When I look back, this movie has a dull, drab, lifeless, understated and a sense of immediate sensitivity to current economic downturn in its narration. Although Fargo is not a close parallel, Fargo too evokes a sense of space, mental state and and weather. The theme, font and colors in the initial credits followed by the depressing aerial view shots from a plane set the tone of the movie. In that sense, I felt that the director’s intent was to convey an almost fatalistic view of life in general. Based on what is revealed about Alex, the movie is a commentary on the cruelty one witnesses as one navigates through life – where intentions have little bearing on outcomes as seen through the eyes of Bingham, Alex, Bingham’s sister and the young bright eyed Cornell grad Natalie.

    Bingham is a smart guy, perhaps a little too smart and detached but life’s cruel plans don’t spare Bingham either, his detachment is a coping mechanism to simplify life but fate will get its way.

    I am surprised you missed an important scene in your analysis which can throw some light on the writer’s intent. In the last scene, Bingham is disillusioned but gets back to his usual flying routine, he is at an airport, looks at the electronic board for flight status and lets his hand go off his baggage. After this scene, the credits roll.

  5. dyebyedx:

    I didn’t miss that scene. I just didn’t know what, if anything, to make of it. What do you think the significance is? General existential tiredness? Him remembering the naive-romantic suggestion from Natalie that if she had that many miles, she’d just get in a plane and go somewhere crazy?

    David — I don’t think becoming a counselor for the laid off would have fit with the Bingham character at all. His ‘backpack’ seminar has a different intent, and he even gives that up.

    Another scene I didn’t analyze because I couldn’t quite make sense of it, was his interrupted phone call to the freq flyer concierge, attempting to transfer miles to his sister so she could do a round-the-world trip. He doesn’t finish that call and says “I’ll call you back” … that is significant I think.

  6. Joining this thread late… just watched the movie last night at Pune where most of the young couples in the audience seemed to be happy laughing extra loud for the obvious funny lines. Overheard two different conversations at the end along the lines of, “The first half was good, after that there was nothing!”

    You also have not analyzed how and why Bingham advises Jim to “go get her” after more or less acknowledging Jim’s analysis and depressing conclusion regarding marriage.

    With all his cleverness Bingham also misreads something Alex says (have to watch it again to get the exact words) and responds with, “Sounds like a trap” whereas she is more consistent with her views, talk and action. Not knowing the plot, I was ready to be hugely disappointed when Bingham flies to Chicago and it looked like a goody-goody Hollywood ending but the twist was keeping in line with the overall tone.

    I found the “You don’t know what you want” part interesting, coming from Alex who is carefully maintaining life in a conventional successful mode and the recipient is a guy who seems to do what he wants however unconventional it may appear.

    • Hey, long time no see!

      And yup: didn’t want to analyze the marriage aspect, since that strays too far from my intent to read the movie as a commentary about work, primarily.

  7. DALE JOHNSSON says:

    Hi
    What i’d love to see you really explore is a much bigger link
    that the sweet fluff about american life, as excellent as that has been,
    please consider the following elements, the eye of horus in the opening credits, punch telegraphing by the illuminati in movies,
    what does up in the air really mean, why is it still running in cinemas till today even in London, consider the movie mic macs, then consider the stark similarity between the movie the messenger Oscar screenplay nominee and the “death” message of termination in Up In The Air…..
    but before you start,
    take a look at this; the next agenda on the globalist plan in war…..connect the dots.