Up in the Air: Shark on the Road

THE STORY OF A MAN READY TO MAKE A CONNECTION.

upintheairSome people will see this film as too depressing to enjoy. Others will consider it a breezy comedy and not quite get what all the fuzz is about. Some will look at the film’s message and find comfort in the fact that they belong to the majority of people who start a family and, so to speak, have a life. And some of us will regard Jason Reitman’s third film as validation of an alternative lifestyle, one that has its own pros and cons.

Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) job is to do what executives all over the country are too gutless to do themselves. Whenever thousands of employees need to be terminated, the Omaha, Nebraska company CTC is hired to handle the process for them. What they do is send someone like Ryan to the location where he sits down with each and every worker, confronts their grief and anger, offers a way out of the crisis… and then rapidly moves on to the next round of terminations somewhere else in the country. Ryan spends 270 days on the road every year and he wouldn’t want it any other way. A single man in his late forties, Ryan considers his life up in the air and in waiting halls all over the U.S. ideal – home is on a barstool in an airport lounge, sipping a drink.

One evening he meets a soul mate. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is an attractive woman who turns out to be just as experienced a traveler as Ryan. They get drunk, share a bed and try to find openings in their calendars where this affair can be continued. However, Ryan’s professional life is taking a turn for the worse as CTC is intent on grounding him in Omaha…

Philosophies keep clashing
A great number of cities are visited throughout the film and we usually see them from above since that’s where Ryan’s life is lived. Two philosophies keep clashing throughout the film. Ryan’s sister can’t understand why he would “isolate” himself this way, and his new partner on the road shares those feelings. She is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), an uptight, naive twentysomething whose compulsive, girlish views on how life should be lived is almost as void of real emotions as the new computer system she has devised that will make Ryan’s travels obsolete.

The dynamic between the two philosophies is very tangible and heartfelt. One reason is that the conflict is illustrated in Clooney and Reitman themselves. The director is a family man while the actor seems to have little desire to find a wife and have kids. Ryan is guaranteed to continue his life the same as always, but Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner make sure that he is challenged. He gets to sample that other choice and there is a real moment where he acts on an opportunity to abandon his philosophy. Does it mean that he’s living a lie? The final conversation between Alex and Ryan strikes at the very core of his life choices… as well as mine and probably millions of others.

The film is funny but its tone of sadness is not easily shaken. The filmmakers also address the current financial crisis and its massive layoffs in an effective way, even arranging interviews with people who have lost their jobs for real and now get a new chance to tell their former employers how the decision hurt them and their families.

I completely understand Ryan Bingham’s philosophy. The character spoke to me, especially since at some point the film almost ceases to be fiction, with Clooney playing a version of himself, and real people, not characters, appearing in those interviews. Some in the audience are going to view Ryan as an icon, an charming excuse to continue one’s life the same way he does. You get to decide whether that is good or bad… but Clooney is one hell of an enabler.

2009-U.S. 109 min. Color. Produced by Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki. Directed by Jason Reitman. Screenplay: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner. Novel: Walter Kim. Cast: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey… Sam Elliott, Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons.

Trivia: Ellen Page was allegedly considered for the part of Natalie.

BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Screenplay.

Quote: “Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.” (Clooney)

Last word: “I added the two female characters, the online subplot, the wedding subplot, the workers testimonies. The book was about a man and a philosophy that really interested me. Sometimes it’s the whole thing, sometimes it’s just a kernel of an idea that you want to use. But I’m lucky in the experiences I’ve had with the writers of the novels [I’ve adapted]. And I call them each time and show them the screenplay and then show them the movie. And so far it’s been OK.” (Reitman, The Guardian)

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