I eagerly entered the theater anticipating an engaging movie experience. Up In the Air has garnered six Golden Globe nominations, with lots of Oscar talk, and I'd read several rave reviews. Moreover, the director, Jason Reitman, made Juno. Despite offending pro-choice feminists and those who adopt from China, the film redeems itself with its positive views on single women. Juno is not just a pregnant, unmarried teenager, but a strong female, who chooses to give her baby for adoption to a more mature single woman.
Initially, Up in the Air seems to incorporate a larger social purpose - to portray the economic irrationality of 21st century capitalism, by placing the story in the current recession. George Clooney's lead character, Ryan Bingham, epitomizes this bankruptcy. He works for a company that sends him flying from city to city, terminating long-term employees when their own bosses can't do it. Reitman effectively incorporates testimonials from laid-off workers in St. Louis and Detroit. But soon marital-status politics emerges to dilute the economic message.
Bingham proclaims his commitment to a single life. But this portrait of a single man depends on the worst stereotypes of singleness: A man with no friends, separated from the siblings he rarely sees, Bingham lives in a sterile, motel-like apartment for only "forty-three miserable days" a year. He loves the anonymity of flying, and one night stands in the hotels and motels he adores. Bingham's goal in life is to be the seventh person in the world to rack up ten million miles with American Airlines.
In the hands of a less skilled actor, we would discern that such a character is highly improbable. Does anyone know someone like him? Because of Clooney's gifts, however, we come to pity Bingham, feeling sorry for this repressed single man who himself is terminated by someone he loves.
The idealization of marriage and family reinforces this negative image of single life. We are treated to a nostalgic scene of the small town wedding of Bingham's sister, where Ryan begins to fall for his "date"(Vera Faringa) as he revisits with her the haunts of his happy childhood.
The words of the terminated workers are even more effective in promoting a family values ideology. In the concluding minutes of the film, they proclaim, with Hallmark card cliches, how being fired made them realize the importance of their spouses and families. Money is not important when you have family support, they say.
Reitman, who co-wrote the script, ignores the social science findings on how unemployment damages family life. But more objectionable than ignoring the facts, is his use of stereotypes to manipulate our feelings. Who do we feel compassion for at the end of the film? Not the fired workers, but the terminator with his lonely single life. Making singleness the villain provides an effective coverup for the real personal costs of our economic system.
See the film. Enjoy its humor and cleverness, the great acting and photography, the sub-plots and plot twists. But be aware of how the film opposes singleness (horrible) with family (wonderful) in order to mask the real polarity of rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the moral and immoral.