The last thing I was expecting when I went to go see George
Clooney's latest film, Up in the Air, was a story reaffirming some of
the core values of the Anscombe Society. The trailers and critical reviews of
the film presented it as a story about the primacy of human relationships in
opposition to the atomistic, solitary life of the main character, Ryan Bingham
(George Clooney). While that theme was certainly central to the narrative, the
message of the film goes further in explicitly endorsing marriage and family as
crucial to human flourishing.
Bingham is employed by a firm that hires him out to corporations who need someone to fire their employees for them. The twist in this seemingly cold-hearted premise is that Bingham views his job as filling an important social role, helping confused, vulnerable, and spiritually crushed individuals get through the devastating experience of being fired. Given the current economic climate, the numerous scenes spotlighting the pain of losing one's job are timely and serve the important function of giving human faces to the lifeless unemployment numbers we see everyday.
Beyond this noble intention of the film is the two-fold theme of family and marriage. Bingham's job requires him to fly across the country constantly, well-over 300 days out of the year. He claims to relish this lifestyle and to abhor the time spent at his permanent address. Indications are given that he has little connection to his family, and he has never married, ostensibly because he has no desire to. Bingham, in short, goes through life with no strong personal connections to other people. He spends his time wrapped in a cocoon of hotel check-ins, mini-bars, and airport Admirals clubs.
Then comes along a new employee at Bingham's company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). A rising star within the company, Natalie is assigned as Bingham's apprentice to learn the ropes of the downsizing industry. She comes with a Stanford pedigree, obvious ambition, and dedication to her career. While these can all be laudable characteristics, given that this is a
Refreshingly, quite the opposite is true. She views marriage
and children as vital to her future happiness. In fact, we later find out (no
big spoiler here, though) that she sacrificed a better job prospect to maintain
the possibility of marrying her boyfriend. Of course, whether that was a good
idea on her part is a separate question, but the fact that she so valued
marriage is encouraging (the implication that she and her boyfriend were living
together prior to marriage as well as other implied premarital sexual
encounters is a distinct, but relatively minor, negative aspect. Can't ask for too much from Hollywood!). She is therefore appalled
by Bingham's claims to being happy with his solitary lifestyle and his
disavowal of marriage, children, and family. Bingham's casual,
no-strings-attached sexual relationship with a fellow frequent-traveler, Alex
Goran (Vera Farmiga), is the antithesis of the future Natalie sees for herself.
Thus, the main conflict in the film revolves around Bingham's way of life and
the events and characters that influence him to change it.
By the end of the film, Bingham comes to see the utter emptiness of his former lifestyle and the importance of family and marriage to human happiness. The life he used to live is shown to be a lie, a self-delusion in which the number of airline miles he accrued was his primary goal and comfort. Life is about far more than the materialistic and selfish desires of individuals; its purpose is to be found in the relationships we maintain, the lives we touch, and the people we love.
In a way, the seed of Bingham's transformation is present at the beginning of the film. His conviction that firing someone can and must be handled with compassion shows his belief in something greater than his exalted Hertz and American Airlines membership benefits. In truth, materialism and self-isolation were never compatible with his core beliefs.
While crude language abounds and a brief scene of nudity is featured, I can recommend the film as having a generally pro-family message. Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) masterfully weaves together the many threads of this film to deliver a wonderful affirmation of the importance of the family, marriage, and the interdependency of human beings. One could hardly ask for a better message during the season of the year most dedicated to those values.