Sunday, July 17, 2011

Don't Make a Scene: Up in the Air

Our "Don't Make a Scene" feature is doing a series we call "The Gospel According to...", in which a main character reveals their philosophy, and a little about themselves in the process.  Hope you enjoy it.

The Gospel According to Ryan Bingham.

The Set-Up:  Up in the Air is a fine film of our times.  Set in the "here and now" of a recession-era economy, it dares to have as its lead character a rootless man and romantic cynic, whose very-much-in-demand job is to 'downsize" people for corporations—firing staff.  "Downsizing" is what he does best, and it extends to his life, as well, eliminating the things that can tie an on-the-move professional down, like commitments to anything and anybody.  During the course of the film, he has a personal crisis that has him calling into question everything he knows, leaving him still rootless, but dissatisfied—up in the air.

It's a film of the "Comeuppance" variety, where the protagonist must learn the hard lesson that what he confidently has known just might be wrong, and that as he lives by the sword, he can be die by it, too.  You can compare it to Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons in that Ryan Bingham's character is as much a product of his times and his society as George Minafer Amberson was of his.  But where the time of "Ambersons" has a grace, an air of elegance and privilege, the time of Up in the Air is our time, a time of recession, disloyalty, and emphasis on The Bottom Line—a time that I doubt will be embraced with the same sort of romantic nostalgia as the turn of the last century.  Where Ambersons had privilege, Up in the Air has "perks."  Where Ambersons emphasized Family and Home, Up in the Air's protagonist is cut off from his family, and his living space is merely that—just another stop along the way.  He's moving too fast to relax, but not to enjoy himself.

"To enjoy himself."  Curious turn of phrase, that.  And writer-director Jason Reitman was lucky to get George Clooney to play Bingham.  Clooney is a likable actor, handsome, loose, funny with crack comic timing, but there's an underlying smugness underneath the smile, an air of privilege.  In movies like Michael Clayton, The American, and Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris, Clooney is self-aware enough to know that too much smiling, too much charm and winsomeness shows off the smirking quality that makes you want, not to see him defeated so much, as to have that perfect smile wiped off his face  (we get a comic dose of that in the scene where a flight attendant inquires whether Bingham wants the can with his complimentary beverage—a momentary misunderstanding that hits him with a dose of reality).

So, here is his "shark" speech, a little something Bingham does on "the side," his self-improvement talk about jettisoning the things that tie you down in this fast-paced world.  It is divided in two parts in the film (and we have brought them together for your convenience).  He will attempt to give it one more time...but stop and abandon it (in much the same way that his cynical divorce attorney has a literal change-of-heart mid-speech in Intolerable Cruelty).  Like the hopeful, consoling speeches he gives his laid-off employees, he no longer believes it, and, striking too close to "home," the words will catch in his throat. 

Ryan Bingham will get his "comeuppance," but with nothing to tie him down, he will stay permanently afloat, in transit, "up in the air," while simultaneously being grounded with the rock-hard terra firma of Reality. He is on constant approach with no ETA.

The Story: Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a good job informing others they've been deprived of theirs. But, on the side he is a guest lecturer on business travel in today's jet age. His speech, like himself, is efficient, calculated and as cold as an TSA pat-down.


RYAN: How much does you life weigh?

Ryan pauses to let us consider this.

RYAN: (CONT'D): Imagine for a second that you're carrying a backpack...I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders...You feel them?

(gives us a beat)

RYAN: Now, I want you to pack it...

RYAN: ...with all the stuff you have in your life.  Start with the little things.  The stuff in drawers and on shelves.  The collectables and knick-knacks.  Feel the weight...

RYAN: it adds up.  Now, start adding the larger stuff. 

RYAN: Your clothes, table top appliances, lamps, linens, your TV.  That backpack should be getting pretty heavy at this point

RYAN: - Go Bigger.  Your couch, your bed, your kitchen table.  Stuff it all in... Your car, get it in there... Your home, whether you have a studio apartment or a two story house.  I want you to stuff it into that backpack.

Ryan takes a beat to let the weight sink in.

RYAN: Now try to walk.

We hear people around us chuckling.  Ryan smiles.  Reveal:


The kind that shifts between lower income corporate retreats and lower income weddings.

We look around the room.  The few dozen people seem to be visualizing as told.  Some are taking notes.

RYAN:  Kinda hard, isn't it?  This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis.  We weigh ourselves down until we can't even move. And make no mistake - Moving is living.

We see nodding.  People's gears turning.

RYAN: Now, I'm going to set your backpack on fire.  What do you want to take out of it? 

RYAN: Photos?  Photos are for people who can't remember.  Drink some...

RYAN: ...gingko and let the photos burn.  In fact let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing.

(A beat of emphasis)

RYAN: It's kind of exhilarating, isn't it? 

RYAN: This is how I approach every day.


Ryan stands before a similar crowd as the opening of the film.

RYAN: Okay.  This is where it gets a little difficult, but stay with me.  You have a new backpack... but this time I want you to fill it with people. 

RYAN: Start with casual acquaintances...

RYAN: ...people around the office, friends of friends and work your way to the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. 

RYAN: Now move into family members - cousins, aunts, and uncles.  Get your sisters and brothers and your parents. 

RYAN: Get them all in that backpack.  And finally...

RYAN: ...your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend. 

RYAN: Get them in there too.

A titter through the crowd.  For the first time, we see Natalie near the side, watching.

RYAN: Don't worry.  I'm not going to ask you to light it on fire.

Light laughter.

RYAN: Feel the weight of that bag.  Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components of your life. 

RYAN: Feel the straps cutting into your shoulders. 

RYAN: All those negotiations and arguments and secrets and compromises.

Ryan lets the weight sink in.

RYAN: Now set that bag down.

You can feel the relief in the room.

RYAN: You don't need to carry all that weight.

Noticeable agreement.

RYAN: Some animals were meant to carry each other.  To live symbiotically over a lifetime.  Star-crossed lovers.  Monogamous swans. 

RYAN: We are not one of those animals.

Ryan focuses towards his conclusion.

RYAN: The slower we move, the faster we die. 

RYAN: We are not swans.  We're sharks.

Up in the Air

Words by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Pictures by Eric Steelberg and Jason Reitman

Up in the Air is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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