Jason Reitman has a marvelous talent for telling encapsulating stories about strong but flawed characters who struggle to make and build relationships with others. I’d put Up In The Air in his top three films, with Juno and Thank You For Smoking in the mix there too. But for me, someone who dreams of holding an American Airlines concierge card one day, there’s a certain allure to George Clooney’s character’s lifestyle, jet-setting nearly every other day of the year, having only a few connections to your name but absolute freedom to go anywhere and do anything you want.
The funny thing about Bingham, though, is that while he considers himself free, that he can get brunch in New York and still be in time for Taco Tuesday in LA, his life is much more confined than anyone else’s. He stays at the same hotels, interacts with the same airline personnel, follows the same procedures and never actually explores any of the destinations he goes to. It’s worth wondering if Bingham has ever travelled anywhere outside of the U.S. at all, and if he is truly a grand master traveler or just an overgrown manboy who is running away from his problems but earning top-notch miles in the process.
Ultimately that’s your call, because one thing that all Reitman movies have in common is that they portray their central characters as flawed, but at the same time, refuse to cast judgement on them. We know they’re a bit kookier, we know that Juno or Nick Naylor or Mavis Gary have a bit of a quirk to them, a flawed moral compass or a chip on their shoulder, but Reitman refuses to say that Juno or Nick or Mavis are bad people. Same thing with Ryan Bingham here, Reitman isn’t telling us Bingham is a bad guy because he likes to spend his time at airport hotels, but instead he’s making us wonder the path of how this character came to be. Was Bingham a guy who had his heart completely broken as a teen and couldn’t stand being in a relationship again so he isolated himself? Or maybe he lost his parents at a young age and that grief put him on a perpetual jet-setting tour. Or maybe none of those things and he just likes traveling!
There is no right or wrong answer to the Ryan Bingham dilemma, and that’s what makes Up In The Air so fresh and enjoyable. When it was released in 2009, it was a timely commentary on the great recession which still holds up today. It’s warm and welcoming like a hotel lobby bar, inviting you to sit and enjoy the gradual story process before things start getting more intense. And even when that big “oh shit” moment happens later on, Reitman still doesn’t cast judgement. His characters like to think of themselves as adults, especially Clooney and Vera Farmiga who talk down to Anna Kendrick’s character. But really they’re all kids in the end, not sure how to deal with their emotions or define their relationships or even express their true feelings. It’s just all up in the air.