Ryan Bingham’s occupation is to relieve people of theirs. He spends 322 days on the road, living out of a carry-on bag and firing employees for corporate honchos who are too gutless to do it themselves. In depressed economic times, his career crescendos.
He packs clothing, wields frequent flyer miles and navigates security with a drill sergeant’s precision. And his solitary, Up in the Air existence is the only thing he loves. It’s delightfully devoid of commitment, affection and other messy complexities of life. He even moonlights as a motivational speaker, giving self-help lectures on how to simplify life by avoiding relational interaction and obligation.
So meeting Alex throws a huge wrench into Bingham’s machine. His female shark-like equivalent, she’s looking for no-strings-attached sex and companionship on business trips. But their episodic interstate hotel trysts gradually leave Bingham suddenly feeling lonely (!) and wanting more.
Twenty-three-year-old upstart dynamo Natalie is equally disruptive to Bingham’s detached routines. She introduces the idea of firing people remotely over the Internet, possibly saving their company millions in travel expenses—but simultaneously threatening Bingham’s very existence.
You see, Bingham oxymoronically believes employees deserve a personal touch when being let go. He demands that inexperienced Natalie learn the old ways before insisting on new ones. Their boss, Craig, concedes, but requires Bingham to do the showing during a cross-country firing expedition. The two immediately challenge each other’s core beliefs, and both are left in a quandary: Natalie wonders if she can live with herself as she destroys people’s lives. Bingham wonders if he can face having a grown-up connection.
Bingham’s story brings to light a whole host of issues worth thinking about when it comes to relationships. More on that in my "Conclusion."
While firing an employee named Bob, Bingham challenges him to rethink his life’s direction, giving him hope. Rather than considering the layoff negative, he tells Bob to see it as a rebirth and chance to pursue his talents and dreams.
Though he hasn’t seen his sisters Kara or Julie in years (Kara tells him, "Basically you don’t exist to us"), he goes to Julie’s wedding and even offers to walk her down the aisle. Later he intervenes when Julie’s fiancé, Jim, gets cold feet, and gives a very-unlikely-from-him pep talk on the importance of companionship and family. When Jim comes around, the experience brings Bingham closer to his siblings. Later he sets up a generous vacation fund for Julie and her new husband.
Craig’s greed and glee in a flagging job market serves as an example not meant to be followed. As does antihero Bingham’s habit of sizing up fellow flyers based almost solely on their race. More negatives that the movie clearly presents as negatives include Bingham manipulating flight attendants (for betters seat assignments) and his ability to apply a false sense of compassion when dealing with the fragile people he fires. Indeed, he’s pretended to feel sympathy for so long that he now seems to think he is actually empathetic. He’s still lying to them, though, when he tells them that their relationship with him is "just the beginning," and that he’ll help them transition into their next job. In reality he knows he’ll never see them again.
Two more things fall into this negative-positive category: True to the world’s increasingly impersonal style, Natalie quits a job via text message, and her boyfriend breaks up with her using the same method.
Bingham loosely compares his profession to the Greek god Charon, who ferries souls across the Styx in the afterlife. A traditional marriage ceremony is shown.
Bingham and Alex’s banter about frequent flyer miles and rental cars is riddled with double entendres. And soon he takes her to his hotel room, where the camera gets a shot of her naked backside. (Bingham’s bare-chested.) They kiss, talk briefly of sexual positions and meet for similar rendezvous later.
Unbeknownst to Bingham, Alex is married, and when he visits her residence unexpectedly, she tells him to leave, hissing, "That’s my family. That’s my real life." She calls him a "parenthesis" and an "escape"—two things he himself had sought until their relationship.
A reference or two is made to homosexuality, prostitution, masturbation and erections. Alex and Bingham "sext" each other. At least one other couple kisses passionately. Women in low-cut dresses show some cleavage.
A recently axed employee pours bleach into the office coffeepot and wields a rifle in a sniper-like attempt at revenge. (No one is hurt.) We hear that an employee whom Natalie and Ryan fired committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 25 f-words and about 10 s-words. God’s name is misused a half-dozen times, Christ’s another three or four. Other language includes a few utterances each of "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑hole," "pr‑‑k," "p‑‑‑ed," "d‑‑k" and "p‑‑‑y."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alex and Bingham first meet over cocktails in a bar. Later the couple and Natalie crash a corporate party where Natalie gets drunk. Alcohol also makes appearances on planes and in hotel minibars and restaurants.
Other Negative Elements
Alex and Bingham break into a school.
Based on Walter Kirk’s 2001 novel, Up in the Air explores the price of relationships—and the cost of a life without them.
"How much does your life weigh?" Bingham asks. And he tells audiences to imagine carrying their lives around in a backpack. First put in the knickknacks, the linens, clothes, TV and couch. Eventually add relationships—everyone from acquaintances to a spouse. Then ponder the crushing weight of the obligations, negotiations and secret compromises made because of these people and things.
Bingham prefers to walk away from it all. His life is about streamlining and traveling light. "The slower we move, the faster we die," he says.
So it’s no coincidence that director Jason Reitman uses The Velveteen Rabbit in one of his scenes. The children’s story exemplifies Bingham’s life: fear of becoming authentic through relationship. After all, being in communion with people is demanding. As the rabbit demonstrates, it wears out your joints, exhausts you and damages your fur.
But it simultaneously makes your life and world wonderfully real.
Bingham does grow to realize that his sterile reality is not a life at all. But downtrodden by Alex’s rejection—and unlike Natalie who courageously seeks other employment—he cannot find it in himself to change. His, then, becomes more of a cautionary tale than an inspirational one as his plight indirectly elevates pursuing family and friends over stockpiling frequent flyer miles.
(The film’s inclusion of sex, boozing and foul language defies direct inspiration, too.)
"We are here to make limbo more tolerable" for the newly unemployed, Bingham tells Natalie. In reality, though, he’s the one treading water. The movie knows it. And we know it.