UP IN THE AIR

Overall Impression – As smart and distant a movie as it’s main character.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS

Who’s your main character? – Ryan Bingham.

What’s he trying to accomplish? – Professional: Keep his job, which involves helping people lose theirs. Personal: Maintain a relationship interruptus with a fellow traveller he meets hit and miss on the road.  Private: learn that putting down roots isn’t a form of death and that human connections are as important as human disconnections.

Who’s trying to stop him? – His boss who wants to turn his job into ‘virtual’ firing instead of face-to-face.

What happens if he fails? – The job he loves will be altered into something he hates, as will the life that he loves.

THE FOUR ARCHETYPES

Orphan – Ryan is a man without a real home.  Even though he has an apartment, it has the feel of having barely been lived in, which is the reality.  Ryan spends most of his time traveling.

Wanderer – Ryan has to travel and train Natalie, a young hotshot at his company who has a plan to make what Ryan does obsolete.  Ryan’s attempts to show Natalie the ropes are thinly disguised ploys to demonstrate to her and their boss that his job is irreplaceable.  While on the road, Ryan also meets Alex, a female executive who travels almost as much as he does. They develop a relationship.

Warrior – When Natalie gets dumped by her boyfriend, Ryan’s ‘unpack your backpack’ philosophy is quietly vindicated.  Oddly, the more he swings Natalie over to his way of thinking, the more he gets swung over to wanting human connection, largely because of his relationship with Alex.

Martyr – Ryan walks out on the dream lecture he wanted to give (he’s a motivational speaker) in order to pursue Alex.  Unfortunately, Alex had a secret which leaves Ryan more broken and alone at the end of the film than he was at the start.

AND, IN THE END…

This is a very good movie with nothing really innovative to tell us.  Do we ever, ever actually buy into Ryan’s ‘what’s in your backpack?’ way of living his life?  Do we ever think to ourselves that we want to be like Ryan Bingham?  That his worldview, job, or lifestyle is in any way enviable?  No.  Ryan Bingham is a human zoo exhibit.  We get to see how some other species lives and then we move on.

Perhaps the point of the film is to make us more appreciative of our lives by comparing ours to the protagonists.  But Ryan Binghan isn’t Precious Jones.  We never cheer on Ryan’s worldview the way we cheer for Precious to change hers,  and when he does attempt to change and he is made bereft as a result, we are left with a very ambiguous message.

As everyone who knows me and my writing can attest to I’m a storytelling market capitalist.   Stories are products, audiences are customers, and the customer is always right.  UP IN THE AIR is doing good business but at the end of the day do people want to leave their homes, pay a babysitter, and spend their money and time watching a story that not only tells them what they already know (human contact is good) but doesn’t reward a earnest and not unattractive main character who tries to embrace this message?

It’s interesting to compare UP IN THE AIR with THE BLIND SIDE.  Both feature award-contention performances, strong main characters, were released around the same time, and cost about the same to make ($30 million) however THE BLIND SIDE is about human empowerment and UP IN THE AIR is about human disempowerment.  At the risk of oversimplifying, this may be why THE BLIND SIDE has earned around three times what UP IN THE AIR has made.  That doesn’t just translate into extra trips to the bank for the filmmakers of THE BLIND SIDE, albeit true, it translates into a story that is being sought out and heard by more people than UP IN THE AIR’s.

And to a storyteller, that’s better than being bumped up to first class.

Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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