Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Revisiting Up in the Air

There's no doubt Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is a contender for Oscar glory this year.
Sure it probably wont win best picture, but best adapted screenplay is a safe best.
And already the Great Recession love story has appeared on dozens of “best of” lists (mine included.)

But not everyone, it seems, agrees about what happens to the main character: the modern man in grey, Ryan Bingham as played by George Clooney.

***Fasten Your Seatbelts, plenty of SPOILERS below***

For me, one of the great pleasures of Up in the Air is how it grows from a slick and smarmy love story to a tragedy. In the beginning, George Clooney's character is the master of his domain. He's not only comfortable in the alien artificiality of an airport, he revels in it. Perhaps it’s because the cold comforts of air travel mirror his life.

But by the third act the frequent flyer has been cruelly grounded. He made the ultimate sacrifice, taking a direct flight to his lady love only to find himself stuck in the snow; the door quickly closed in his crumpling face.

To me, this is the point of no return.

Like a bubble boy stepping outside for the first time, the character Ryan has lost his ability to enjoy the freshly sanitized pleasures of air travel. When his boss tells him they're sending him back on the road indefinitely (“send us a postcard when you get there”) there's a weary look in Ryan's eyes.

And so here's the question: Near the end of the film, (George Clooney's character) Ryan arrives back at the airport. We see him staring up at the departure board; carry-on luggage at his side. There's a close-up of his face. His hair is less than perfect. His eyes are wide. And he lets go. Lets go of his perfect-traveller’s suitcase as he stares up at the sea of destinations.

What is he thinking? For me, there's a sense of resignation there.

He doesn't want to be there. Having felt some real warmth in his life, going back In The Air is the last place Ryan wants to be.

Yet he does – which is the beauty of the film. And then there's the final line:

"Tonight, millions of people will come home to screaming children, barking dogs. Their spouses will hug them and ask them how their day was. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over".

Now to me, those are the words of a man in exile. Sure it's artful but there's a sense of sadness there. Of course, not everyone sees it that way.

A friend of mine had a very different interpretation of that moment in the airport. When Ryan is looking at the departure sign, my friend felt he was happy. Ryan was returning to a place where he felt safe. After giving a real relationship a try and getting burned, he's running back to his refuge in the sky.

And there’s one more interpretation to stoke those fires. Another friend believes Ryan is looking at the departure board and planning to use all of his remaining frequent flyer miles (he should still have about 9 million or so) to plan his very own trip around the world.

Of course I believe it's option A. Sure the final shot is a heaven of sorts… with it beautiful sun-kissed clouds. But again, it's a false paradise. Outside, the air is freezing and the wind howls.

What do you think?
Watch this deleted bonus scene from the DVD.
More fuel for the fire!