Trailers these days have no sense of mystery. In the span of an Iggy Pop song, the Up in the Air trailer reveals that the film is about a man, specifically a Clooney-esque perpetual bachelor type (there was some meta-casting going on), and said man, who had always prided himself on standing alone, is going to learn a valuable lesson about the importance of human companionship. As it turns out, the lesson Up in the Air offers is not so much about the value of love, but rather the importance of settling when you still have the chance. If I hadn’t already read that Lori Gottlieb’s pro-giving-up-the-dream-and-putting-a-ring-on-it essay from the Atlantic had already snagged a film deal , I would have offered Up in the Air as the perfect cinematic embodiment of her point.
The underlying point being, of course, pick somebody, anybody, before it’s too late. Clooney plays Ryan, a professional firer of sad-sack employees. He’s disconnected from everyone-his family, his co-workers, romantic interests-and he prefers it that way. That is, until an overly ambitious younger co-worker, Natalie, shows up on the scene and reforms his company and the way he sees his life. Natalie is the generational foil for Ryan-she single-handedly brings the firing business into the brave new technological age, and Ryan hates it. She has a strict timeline-marriage at 23, corner office a few years later, and babies soon after-that baffles Ryan. They’re such cookie-cutter opposites, it’s impressive there’s even dialogue between them.
Over the course of the film Natalie urges Ryan to take his on-during-layovers romance with a fellow whip-smart businesswoman and frequent traveler, Alex, to the next level. Not because, you know, he likes her a lot (which he does), but because, according to Natalie, she’s the only one "who will put up with you." Natalie, on the other hand, who’s rather grossly depicted as too ambitious for her own good, is broken up with by her fed-up boyfriend and subsequently consoled by Ryan and Alex, who tell her that by the time she’s in her 30s, her laundry list of criteria for a mate will be whittled down to just a few simple needs. Alex specifically notes that at some point just a "nice smile and hopefully a full head of hair" will do. The settling imperative is subtle because Natalie’s laundry list is rendered as so ridiculously detailed as to make it OK in contrast, but it’s there. Natalie’s takeaway in the film is that in order to succeed she needs to trade in some stuff, most notably the fantasy of an ideal companion for a sufficient one.
The philosophy is more literally acted out when Ryan returns home to Wisconsin to find his sister marrying and forgiving (after he gets momentary cold feet) a good-natured schlub played by Danny McBride. As Stephanie Zacharek writes in Salon : "And he is having all too much fun in his life of emptiness, which means he'll have to face a crisis tied to the impending marriage of his younger sister (played by Melanie Lynskey), a sweet Wisconsin girl who's happy to settle for the little things in life (symbolized by her not-so-little sweater-wearing fiancé)."
If Ryan’s having so much fun in his empty life as Zacharek writes (and he is), why does seeing his sister settle for a chubby simpleton rev up his commitment engine? Because the underlying assumption of the movie is that every person everywhere, no matter how satisfied he or she is, no matter how happily independent, secretly craves a life partner (whether he or she knows it or not). And as evidenced by his sister’s union, anyone’s better than no one. The philosophy is furthered by the camera confessions of the fired interspersed into the narrative of the film. All of the laid-off employees confess that they wouldn’t have gotten through the experience without their spouses-that their marriages were the only thing that saved them from other unthinkable fates. Partnering up isn’t so much a romantic mission in Up In the Air ; it’s a necessary means to an end. And that end is survival.