“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that
the man should be alone…”
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep war, but how can one keep warm alone?” Ecclesiastes 4:9-11
“But when he came to himself…” Luke 15:17a
What if nobody was home when the prodigal son came “to himself” and arrived back at his birth place? No father. No servants and a fatted calf for celebrating. Not even an older brother to quarrel with. That is the situation in director Jason Reitman’s new film, which he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner. Starring George Clooney at the top of his form, Up in the Air is one of the best films of the year, one which can result in a richly rewarding discussion session of life styles and values for church folk.
Mr. Clooney’s Ryan Bingham calls himself a Termination Facilitator. His job is to fly around the country and, on behalf of the boss of a corporation, handle the messy task of firing an employee, thus saving his client a great deal of pain and pressure. Unlike Arnold Schwarzennegar’s Terminator, Ryan never dispatches his victims with a joke or a cold shoulder. He delivers a supposedly compassionate spiel to the terminee, much akin to Monty Python’s using a shallow, optimistic song like “Look on the Bright Side” during the Crucifixion in his film . Sometimes he convinces the persons being fired that this will indeed add to their character or lead them to greater success elsewhere. Mostly however, as we see by a string of real-life persons who have been terminated, he leaves the person in shock, anger, or in tears.
Ryan observes that he has spent “322 days on the road, 43 miserable days at home,” the latter a rather barren apartment in Omaha that is about as distinguishable as one of his motel rooms. In between firing people Ryan speaks at motivational conferences, his canned speech entitled “What’s in Your Backpack?” teaching that one must live as sparely as he packs his one carry-on bag. This means keeping human relationships at a bare minimum as well as avoiding collecting a lot of possessions. One lives for the joy of the moment. Except for the first part, Ryan could be a secular version of a medieval monk. Few possessions. No personal entanglements—until he encounters Alex (Vera Farmiga).
Their meeting at an airport bar is an amusing encounter in which they show off the perks of their trade—their excusive credit and membership cards that show their high status as frequent flyers. Ryan’s goal (which I don’t remember whether he has already achieved it or soon does) is ten million Frequent Flyer miles on American Airlines (of course, no product placements in this film). She is impressed, and after a tryst, is equally so with his bedroom manners, as he is with her, so that soon they are arranging their complicated itineraries and schedules so that they can spend more hours in bed together.
However, Ryan’s world, which he regards as Eden-like, is about to be ruined by a second woman. He discovers when he is called back to headquarters in Omaha that his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) has hired a recent college graduate with a captivating idea. She is the perky Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) whose proposal that the company use the Internet to dismiss their clients’ employees. This would save a great deal of money—no airline tickets, expensive hotel and restaurant bills.
Dismayed at the proposal, Ryan raises objections, such as what can you do at a distance if the dismissed person decides to do away with him or herself? Accusing Natalie of being naïve and not really understanding the complicated process of dealing with a suddenly fired person, he convinces his boss to delay any change until she learns first-hand their business. He of course will be her tutor, she accompanying him on his next series of trips to observe how he goes about cushioning the blow to the fired person’s ego. This section, which we might call “The Education of Natalie,” begins right at the airport when Ryan orders her to get rid of all the non-essential clothing in her suitcase that has to be checked, taking with her only that which fits into a carry-on bag.
There is also a third woman in Ryan’s life, his older sister Kara (Amy Morton) whose daughter Julia (Melanie Lynskey) will soon be married in Wisconsin. Ryan is sent a large cut-out of Julie and her fiancé Jim (Danny McBride) and asked that he hold out the cutout so that someone can take a picture of the pair, seemingly visiting come of the more prominent cities that Ryan flies in and out of. Ryan had considered skipping the wedding, but he has become so attached to Alex that he asks her to accompany him to the wedding. A good thing that he does, because when the groom gets cold feet a few hours before the ceremony, Julia turns to her brother to go and talk Jim into going through with the wedding. The scene is funny and poignant, because Ryan’s reason that wins Jim over also convinces the arguer that he should commit himself to Alex. The touching scenes at the wedding and reception are akin to the prodigal’s “coming to himself” in the Gospel of Luke parable, show how Alex has become for him far more than a bed partner.
If you liked Mr. Reitman’s previous two films Thank You for Smoking and Juno, you will enjoy his one too. Like the others it is funny in its observations and right on target in its conclusions about human nature and relationships. Although in planning before the current economic crisis was fully known, the film could not be more timely. More important, the film’s truth, underscoring the teaching in the Genesis Creation story and the observation of the writer of Proverbs, is timeless.
This contains some spoilers that reveal a surprise or two in the film, so I strongly warn you not to read further if you have not see this film 1. What is the song playing as the film opens? How is Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings version of Woody Guthrie’s venerable “This Land Is Your Land” different from the familiar one? How does it set the scene for things to come, alerting us that this might not be your usual boy meets girl or character transformation movie? Just as it is different from the familiar version, how is this film different from the usual romantic film, or the cad-becomes-human genre?
2. Describe the main characters and what seem to be their underlying values or motivations: Ryan; Alex; Natalie. Which of them changes or arrives at a deeper awareness of life and enduring values? Which of them experience a moment of “coming to him/herself” ?
3. How are the membership cards and the coveted Ten Million Mile card in Ryan’s wallet like the household idols that our ancient ancestors carried around in their travels?
4. In what ways do the filmmakers show the emptiness of Ryan’s life, despite his voice-over expressions of satisfaction? Arial views of cities; the series of generically decorated motel rooms and his own apartment; solo meals; comments by his sister?
5. What do you think of the following excerpt from Ryan’s lecture?
“Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the co
mpromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.” Compare this with what He says to the reluctant groom in the next question.
6. How is Ryan’s reasoning ( “life is better with company” ) with the doubting Jim a working out of the Proverbs and Genesis passages? Which is more enjoyable for you: eating a meal or watching a movie alone, or sharing the experience with others?
7. How has Alex achieved equal status with men, but with perhaps unexpected consequences? In other words, what are the less than praiseworthy male attributes has she embraced? What results do you think her double life will eventually have?
8. Were you surprised by the turn in Alex and Ryan’s relationship? How is this different from the usual Hollywood romance story? How is Ryan still better off as a result of what he has experienced?
9. Look up on the Internet the lyrics for the next to last song playing during the end credits, Graham Nash’s “Be Yourself.” Think about (or discuss” such phrases as: “How does it feel when life doesn’t seem real?/And you’re floating about on your own…” “We needed a saviour…” “A prodigal son’s coming home…” “Be yourself, why don’t you be yourself ?” 10. Where do you find God in this film, and what do you think the Creator is saying?