Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When Life Imitates the Screen: The Unbearable Lightness in 'Up in the Air'

"Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life."
-Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a frequent flier who drops into stranger's lives to take away their livelihood -- then unapologetically departs. This is our protagonist in Jason Reitman's crowd-pleaser Up in the Air.

The movie's tagline, "The story of a man ready to make a connection," is fitting. But Ryan never seeks a connection, like he sought out those 10 million air miles, in my opinion. He was too committed to his "backpack" philosophy -- a motivational mantra he developed that equates success to the load you carry: the lighter the load, the faster you move.

Ryan's philosophy reminds me of Tomas in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Like Tomas, Ryan's load is initially light, nearly nonexistent. He has no people in his life, no sense of home or allegiance or loyalty beyond his frequent flier miles. It seems this is a common theme among men in fiction, when it comes to lightening their load in the quest of their dreams, males tend to discard love first. Are romantic relationships really that disposable? Are the compromises in love that debilitating?

"Feel the weight of that bag," he says. "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."

It's easy as a viewer to have a love-hate relationship with Ryan, as he continued to laugh in the face of love and relationships. But what's a story if the protagonist doesn't change, doesn't shift, doesn't come to some kind of realization? And, he meets his match in Alex (Vera Farmiga), who's tallied up her own sky miles and royalty cards.

It isn't until Ryan sees this mirror unto himself in the form of Alex -- a similarly alienated, sexy and seemingly unattached businesswoman, who demands nothing of him but a layover booty call -- that he realizes that his backpack shtick may be bull, inviting her to his sister's wedding.

While I won't divulge the film's ending, I will say that Ryan makes connections, but keeps on keeping on, miles above settlers in a cloudless sky: "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places," he says, "and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over."
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