Up in the Air is the little film that almost could. Well, yes, truthfully, it’s not such a little film. It may exude the jaded cool of indie cinema, but it’s certainly a big film by independent standards, helmed as it was by “IT” indie director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) and starring America’s one truly untouchable movie star (George Clooney).
The film goes into the Academy Awards with six big gun nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress (for which it received two nods). Yet it certainly couldn’t be called a favorite in any of these categories. And for all of its critical acclaim, most viewers seemed unsure what to make of it, finding as they did something slightly off-putting about the film. Universally admired, it was beloved by few. This dichotomy is perhaps due to the fact that it dares to accomplish some deft social commentary, making it inherently unsettling to watch. In that way, it bears a close resemblance to a similarly unnerving film classic: The Graduate. Like Up in the Air, Mike Nichols’ 1967 ode to suburban ennui and the cultural changes that would soon foment into full-blown revolution, also received a half dozen Oscar nominations. But it garnered only one award, for Nichols, who many felt received the statuette as a consolation prize after he didn’t win for 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Up in the Air is no cinematic throwback, though. It’s very much of the moment. It contains some slyly dark observations about the increasingly dominant (and plastic) values of corporate convenience, as well as the cost of subsuming personal autonomy to the greater consumer good. Its anti-hero, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), is a modern-day gunslinger who travels from corporate complex to corporate complex, performing the layoffs companies are too cowardly to undertake themselves. He is comforted by the bland, unmarred gloss of a world of frequent flyer miles and customer rewards programs in which he is quite content to be a number, rather than a name.
And yet, as au current as it is, Up in the Air could be seen as The Graduate for the post-Woodstock, post-Warped Tour generation. Both films have a similarly muted tone in which any form of personal connection is so difficult to achieve, it’s almost as if all of the characters suffer from Asperger syndrome. And yet, both achieve incredibly subtle, and ultimately moving, examinations of the quest for self-actualization, presented alongside the terrifying realization that knowing oneself may actually make it that much harder to get along in a world in which bland platitudes stand in for any deeper reflection.
It’s as if everything and nothing has changed in the intervening 40-plus years between the films. Up in the Air sets its tale in the recycled air of airport culture. And the opening sequence of The Graduate also unfolds on an airplane, as recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns to his native Los Angeles after a successful stint at an East Coast College. Stiff and self-conscious in a prim suit, he moves through the airport like a zombie, his eyes flashing on everything, landing on nothing, as the brilliant Simon & Garfunkel score opens with “The Sound of Silence.” From there, the film follows Braddock’s descent into inertia, and then a mania verging on full scale nervous breakdown, as he wrestles with the alcohol-drenched emptiness of the upper class world in which he was weaned and is now expected to take his rightful place.
The family milieu faced by Up in the Air‘s anti-hero, Bingham, is presented with similarly ironic condescension at the film’s start. The preternaturally efficient Bingham is forced to clutter his carry-on with a cardboard cutout of his sister Julie Bingham (Melanie Linskey) that serves as a physical embodiment of the burden he finds family life to be.
Much of the humor in both films comes from the glee they take in skewering the supposedly sublime trappings of American family life. Both exaggerate their portraits enough to tip into the realm of farce. And both are finally so disquieting because they do such a keen job of pointing out all that’s facile and deluded about our cultural norms without providing any real hope of a better way to live.
It doesn’t bode well for us in 2010 that, even after we’ve undergone the full blown cultural revolution that was presaged with such dramatic effect in the final scene of The Graduate, Reitman’s film suggests that we still haven’t landed on a way to grow up without getting soft. This perennial coming-of-age dilemma is made all the more poignant in Up in the Airby the fact that Bingham is a good two decades older than Braddock was in The Graduate. He’s achieved all of the success and personal autonomy that Braddock seemed equally afraid of missing out on, or achieving. And yet, Bingham is just as immature and adrift as the young Braddock was in the scenes in which he floated aimlessly on a raft in his parents’ pool. We as a culture (or at least the thinking people in our culture who prefer to choke down their popcorn while being challenged by films like The Graduate and Up in the Air) seem to be just as terrified as we’ve always been that the American dream is all a sham.
But it’s even worse now. The giddiness with which Braddock and his lady love, Elaine Robinson, escaped from their parents’ rigid religious and cultural strictures has given way to the disappointment and disillusionment that finally felled the Me generation. Hence the extended adolescence run rampant in our culture (just think of the business men in their ’60s still sporting Converse sneakers, and the parents updating their Facebook status alongside their teenaged children). Who can blame Bingham for hiding out in the friendly skies when the alternatives to his bleak bachelor apartment and comfortable premier status have been shown to be the stuff of midlife crisis anyhow?
In both films, the men are thawed, and then threatened, by an affair with a woman. And while the dynamic chemistry between Clooney’s Bingham and his love interest, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), gives their relationship a depth and warmth that would probably make both of these preternaturally cool characters uncomfortable if it was pointed out to them, the dramatic dénouement that inspires Bingham to undergo what small and uneasy growth he eventually achieves does not offer any greater reassurance about the possibilities of real connection through romantic love than The Graduate did.
It’s true that both films end with their anti-heroes making stands that allow them to finally, just barely, grow into men who act upon their own lives. And yet, both conclude with the suggestion that their triumph is tenuous and will be short-lived, given the enormous cultural pressures that have born down on their characters throughout the course of both stories. Even the slightly sunnier ending of Up in the Air, which uses cinema verite-style interviews with real people who were really downsized in St. Louis and Detroit, to affirm the value of family in uncertain economic and cultural times, isn’t exactly a feel good finale. In fact, that’s what’s so haunting, and therefore, ultimately successful about both films. They leave the lingering suspicion that they’ve captured something genuine about our fear that it is impossible to ever truly connect with another person. Both films feature characters that grow, a little, creating the opportunity to imagine an off-screen future in which greater self-knowledge could lead to better lives. But, somehow, that seems a little too pat for either film. So, it may have to be enough that both, at least, leave the door open for more films about why, even with all of its comforts, modern life can often be so uncomfortable.