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"Up in the Air" - Another Hollywood Mindf**k

January 16, 2010


Clooney  "hooks up" with "Alex", then falls for her, only to learn that she is married and has a family. That's sacrosanct and he crossed the "no strings attached" line when he showed up at her door with flowers.

But her
infidelity, that's not an issue. That doesn't cross any line. The rules have to be observed for hook ups, not for marriages.

Thanks to Hollywood social engineering, feminists like Alex can have prestigious jobs and sleep with whomever, while maintaining an idyllic marriage and family life, just like men. 

by Barbara Kay,  National Post 

U p in the Air  is the Rom Com (romantic comedy) of the year. Most critics love it. It's hugely entertaining, but the surprise ending (spoiler alert!) sends a jarring message no reviewer (to my knowledge) has mentioned.

The film is based on Walter Kirn's eponymous 2001 novel about Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living. Ryan spends most of his time on airplanes, travelling to mundane, mid-sized American cities, in each occupying a mundane office cubicle in which he fires mundane workers.

Characterization is dictated by plot. Ryan has a sideline as a charismatic motivational speaker touting the advantages of the untethered life. Successful public speaking is an uncommon achievement, conferring unusual gratification and recognition. How an implausibly urbane man with Ryan's smarts and communication skills can mesmerize audiences, yet find job satisfaction as a faceless nomad, reducing innocent but suddenly expendable people in hard times to emotional rubble in endlessly repetitive, rigidly scripted platitudes is not explained.

"Home" in Omaha is a ruthlessly unadorned studio apartment. Ryan's preferred habitat is any anonymous airport, his great ambition the distinction of joining American Airlines' intimate club of 10-million-mile fliers (he ends up being number 7, and the youngest member).

On one of his downsizing forays, he hooks up with Chicago based Alex, a beautiful, sophisticated frequent-flying female version of himself. Their brisk, mutually straightforward seduction of each other suggests a long history of sexual grazing at the diverse human buffet frequent travel provides.

They continue to hook up when schedules coincide. On impulse after a particularly amorous interlude in another city, Ryan asks Alex to be his date at his niece's wedding in northern Wisconsin. She accepts.

During the wedding weekend, Ryan and Alex seem to connect at a deeper level. He takes her on a nostalgic tour of his former high school. The act of sharing his past opens up a seam of emotional receptivity in him, which Alex in no way resists.

Shortly afterward, succumbing to the neediness the trip home has inspired, Ryan impulsively flies to Chicago to see Alex and declare his feelings. Arriving unexpectedly at her door, he is shocked to hear the sound of children and a husband's voice. Alex's bourgeois family represents her real life, just as airports are Ryan's. He leaves before any damage is done, but she is furious with him for breaking the rules of their ... whatever it is, and for putting her happiness at risk. He meekly accepts her right to be angry. Back to his meaningless life he goes, sadder and not much wiser.

This is where the film lost its appeal for me. Ryan presented honestly as what he was, a single man looking for brief encounters. Alex presented herself as a single woman looking for same. But she wasn't. She was committed -- in her way -- to a family. Ryan wasn't cheating on anyone. She was.

Ryan's crime, in Alex's eyes, was to allow emotion to col-our what was supposed to be a sex-only affair of convenience, the result of which was a near-intrusion into the real life Alex apparently holds sacred.

And yet: A mother of small children with a punishing travel schedule, Alex broke what surely has to be an equally important rule for one playing that game: the rule that says a frequent flyer's rare free time should be spent with one's nuclear family. She took a whole precious weekend -- precious for them, at least -- for an extended sexual fling, cementing the impression that she was single, and allowing Ryan's family to lavish warmth on her as a potential in-law to boot.

Ryan's life is shallow and cyclical. For all his charm, he's a social failure. In the end, he comes to realize that. It is clear he meant to change his ways -- for the better, by accepting responsibilities he had shunned -- if he had committed to Alex.

Alex's life is compartmentalized and cynical. She's an ethical traitor to her family, and has no intention of changing her ways, since there is no hint that she perceives herself to be a moral failure.

In most comedies worthy of the name, even if guy doesn't get girl, some sense of social order and just desserts should prevail. Alex deserved exposure for her multiple duplicities, and Ryan deserved to feel he had been gratuitously humiliated.

Instead, the movie ends with Alex seizing and holding a false moral high ground, with Ryan accepting her judgment of him as a cad for succumbing to a yearning for intimacy. The would-be gentleman is alone and sad. The travel slut is happy and self-righteous. How Rom is that? How Com is that?

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Comments for ""Up in the Air" - Another Hollywood Mindf**k"

Morley Evans said (January 17, 2010):

Up in the Air" is not "romantic" and it is not "comic". It is horrifying. The very idea that anyone would consider this movie either romantic or funny (both, you say?) tells us we are in the toilet. The fact that "Up in the Air" is popular, tells us that someone has pulled the chain and flushed the commode. Barbara Kay has written an excellent review of a despicable movie. "Halloween" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" are funnier and more romantic.

Richard said (January 16, 2010):

The characters in 'Up in the Air' are already familiar to me. Clooney is playing a character that's fifteen or twenty years younger than he is in real life. These are lives from the X-Generation now in their 30's. I think it's intended as a chick flick mainly.

As Barbara Kay observed, "Successful public speaking is an uncommon achievement, conferring unusual gratification and recognition. How an implausibly urbane man with Ryan's smarts and communication skills can mesmerize audiences, yet find job satisfaction as a faceless not explained." I think she does explain it by noting, "Characterization is dictated by plot."

His character is a bit bent to conform to what the aspiring Alexes in the audience would see if they were in a relationship like that. The movie doesn't seem to be about the man's awakening emotional maturity, it's about the skewed impression that Alex has the more 'mature' control of her emotions by maintaining compartmentalization between her family life, career life, and slut life. "Post Modern" culture today teaches girls that these three compartments are part of a balanced diet of success.

I detect a vestigial preference in female instinct that even men they're cheating with are supposed to fall head over heels in love with them, and have wholesome parents and family to introduce them to. What I'm saying is a real Ryan would have invited her to take a side trip to Las Vegas or Bermuda for an extended sex romp.

As for Ryan the real life business class corporate bachelor that really is capable of frequent flier encounters will probably know better than to marry a career woman if and when he decides he wants a spouse. The Houston Business Journal published statistics a few years ago showing that when financially successful men in the 35-45 range seek a spouse, they look for housewife material. Like nurses and secretaries (service and care industries) in their 20's that have designed their lives to be home makers rather than career 'power' women'.

The career type women usually don't look up from pursuing career till they're 35, having believed the propaganda that they need to establish their success first so they can be independent.
But then, movies don't represent the way people and culture really are. They reinforce programming that life really does work the way the little 1 2 3 techniques they taught people in previous movies are supposed to turn out.

Henry Makow received his Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Toronto in 1982. He welcomes your comments at