I heard good things about George Clooney’s movie Up in the Air when it first came out in 2009 but knew absolutely nothing about it before watching it. When it came in the mail from Netflix this week and I read the blurb on the sleeve, I wasn’t intrigued enough to watch right away. (And that, my friends, is called a marketing failure.)
But this weekend I finally found the motivation to watch it, and from beginning to end, I was hooked. I’ll not recap the plot in tons of detail because, if you haven’t seen it, you probably won’t want to read this anyway, since there’ll be spoilers.
Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is extremely likable in this movie, despite the fact that he’s perceived by (some of) his surrounding characters as a bit of a self-involved, misanthropic prick. His job is to fly around the country and fire people for companies with executives who don’t have the guts to do their own dirty work. (Do firms like this actually exist? It seems like a preposterously cowardly and insensitive industry, even for the United States.) Because of the nature of what a job like Ryan’s entails, he seems to have grown rather cynical and detached, but (and this is the reason the viewer is able to like him, even if other characters don’t) he has a winning, surprisingly congenial air about him, an unidentifiable redemptive quality that keeps him from scorn and makes his biting sarcasm almost charming. For some reason, it’s just impossible not to believe that, for all his pretenses of aloofness and distance, he truly is a good guy.
I found myself identifying with him in the beginning – his need to travel light (literally, since he travels for a living; figuratively, meaning relationally) and his preference for being alone more often than not resonated with me. His unconcern about significant life events – getting married, settling down, having children – is a nonchalance I can relate to. Then he meets a woman (of course) who immediately seems his perfect match because she’s just as detached and distant as he is. In fact, in a phone call discussing the nature of their relationship, Alex even tells him, “Just think of me as the female version of you. When you get lonely, call.”
About halfway through the movie, Ryan’s 23-year-old, starry-eyed coworker, Natalie, gets dumped by her boyfriend, and it sends her into a crying fit in the middle of a hotel lobby. It happens to be one of the times Ryan is meeting up with Alex, so over drinks that loosen their tongues and inhibitions, the three sit and talk about expectations, life goals, and hopes that change as people age.
Natalie laments the fact that she’s 23 and unmarried, while acknowledging that her feelings are anti-feminist and therefore contemporarily unpopular. She regrets her decision to have followed a boy (her now ex) to Omaha, having turned down a swanky job in California for the sake of his career. Ryan and Alex cluck their tongues and shake their heads condescendingly while Natalie continues to spout platitudes common to “people your age,” as they put it more than once.
Here is where I felt a departure from my identification with Ryan and a shameful transition to understanding Natalie’s wide-eyed, naive-sounding, idealistic, unrealistic feelings. At one point she says, “I thought I would be married by now.”
I have said that before. In college, I made what I thought was a silly pact with a guy to get married to him if we were both still unattached by a certain age. It seemed a given that I’d be married by that time, so the pact was a definite and absurd joke, something that would presumably be rendered obsolete by the time we reached the agreed-upon age. The age we set? Something practical and truly many years away, like 40 or 50? Guess again: 23. (In case you’re unaware, I am now 26.) When 23 came and went and I still wasn’t married, my friend reminded me of our pact, and I had to revoke the promise (though I am pretty sure he wasn’t disappointed, nor do I think he’d have gone through with it if I had called in the favor).
The reality that Natalie and I both had to discover is that life rarely meets expectations. She also makes the comment, when Alex asks her at one point if she thought her boyfriend was the one, “I could’ve made it work.” In light of such a defeatist concession, it is interesting when, moments later, she accuses Alex of “settling” after Alex tries to explain that it is futile to attempt to hold onto the expectations we have for our lives. As if “I could’ve made it work” wouldn’t have been settling?
Settling is such an interesting concept, and it’s tricky knowing when and where to draw the line. I have had to learn more than once the lesson that I shouldn’t have to settle when it comes to love. But settling and adjusting expectations (or refusing to set up expectations) don’t have to be the same thing. And neither do settling and compromising. Or settling and sacrificing.
Adjusting (or removing) expectations, compromising, sacrificing – these are all necessary components of choosing to love someone. But the results of these truly selfless actions shouldn’t leave one feeling disappointed or resentful or bitter, and if they do, that’s where the line can be clearly drawn between whether these actions really are loving (and therefore necessary), or if we are disguising some version of settling with fancier, more mature-sounding labels.
Another key component that marks the difference between settling and something more selfless – more loving – is reciprocation. If I compromise, sacrifice, and love without expectation but these incredibly vulnerable acts go unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated, un-reciprocated? Then, no matter how intense or honest or pure my love for another person is, my efforts will still be rendered pointless, will turn into settling, and will lead to bitter disappointment.
Reconciling this truth with reality is something I have struggled with before, and it is something Natalie struggles with too. Regardless, she optimistically (and a little judgmentally) continues to pursue attempts to change Ryan and soften a heart she perceives as dark, distant, and closed off.
Eventually, as Ryan spends more time with Alex, he does change (though Natalie isn’t there to witness it). He achieves his superficial goal of racking up 10 million frequent-flier miles, but not surprisingly, the achievement and subsequent reward no longer hold the luster they once did. Shortly after, a predictable scene ensues in which he spontaneously flies to Chicago to surprise Alex at home. This is supposed to indicate to her that he is ready to open his heart and settle down, a gesture I am confident he wouldn’t make if he felt even the tiniest doubt about whether Alex feels the same way.
Unfortunately, a curveball the viewer could arguably see coming (depending on how perceptive he has been during earlier scenes) is thrown into the plot when Alex opens the door to her home and reveals that she is a wife and mother. Everything Ryan thought to be true about this woman he has fallen in love with is suddenly thrown into stark contrast as he realizes (and as she bluntly tells him) that, for her, he is merely “an escape, a parenthesis.” Ouch. He is forced to admit that the Alex he knows is just a character, a role she adopts for her own amusement. (This, of course, is hinted at on the boat scene, when she tells him, “I don’t get to be this fun when I’m at home.”)
The movie ends with Ryan going home and slipping back into his nomadic, traveling-light lifestyle. The implication the viewer is left with is that there was no reason for him to change, to soften, or to let someone in because all it did was get him burned.
It’s a pretty pessimistic way to end the movie, the burden of such a conclusion lightened only slightly by Natalie’s resolution – in which she moves to California and gets the job she originally turned down in order to follow her boyfriend to Nebraska. Her employer asks her why she turned down the job previously, and she meekly says, “I followed a boy.”
I felt a swell of pride when he answers, “I guess we’ve all done that at some point in our lives,” because this is something I can honestly say I’ve never done. And I hope I never will, unless there’s a ring on my finger. I cannot justify upending my entire life (or putting reachable personal dreams on hold) for a relationship whose level of commitment has not been tangibly sealed.
That being said, I’m satisfied with how the movie ends. The empowering and significant (borderline cheesy) message implied by Natalie’s resolution is artfully balanced by the cynical, somewhat disappointing and discouraging resolution for Ryan’s character. It feels real. Things work out well for some people; for others, they don’t. Life, unfortunately, is not in the business of tying up loose ends, so why should a movie script?