‘Up In The Air’ – Film Review and Analysis

“The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.”

Ryan Bingham has chosen a different life path than most people he knows. Instead of staying in his hometown, reveling in the glories past of high school and the diner down the road, he wanted to leave his roots and his family for his true passion in life: being up in the air and striving for excellence as a motivational speaker. The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.

Bingham (played by George Clooney) is at a crossroads in middle age where he has forgone the responsibilities that are normally achieved by most people his age with a house and a picket fence, being married, and maybe having children. He has forgone all that for an industry on the rise sadly at the time the film is set in and for being out on the road and up in the air for 250+ days of the year. He advocates for a life in motion because if he is not moving, he is not actually living.

His work like his constant travel is an unorthodox industry where he works as a human resources consultant traveling both domestically and internationally to do the dirty work of firing or ‘letting go’ employees in person and providing them with transition packet(s) that the company that’s firing them is leaving them with to help them in the ‘transition’ period. It is a rough job that due to the 2008-2009 global recession has made his HR consultancy firm as needed as ever. The one industry at the time that is gaining jobs rather than losing jobs, Ryan finds himself at risk of having his life of work travel outsources to advancements in video technology (about ten years before Zoom and Skype became mainstream).

While Ryan Bingham is not at risk of getting laid off like so many other working Americans during the period of the Great Recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Bingham is at risk of losing his life of travel on the road due to firing people via telecommunications video instead. To make matters worse, his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is tasking him with having a new hire out of Yale University, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) shadow his in-person firings for a few months as the company, CTC, makes the transition to virtual consulting instead of letting those employees go in-person from now on.

That is not the only change that threatens to upend Ryan’s life choice as he has met a charming, attractive woman who has the same lifestyle as him and appears to see life as he does with less commitments and more choice. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is the constantly traveling business woman for whom Ryan may have finally met his match. While they started out as a casual fling, Ryan begins to develop feelings for her as he ponders his uncertain future of life on the road as well as the fact that once he achieves his life goal of ten million airline miles accumulated may not have much to strive for.

Ryan and Natalie may not show it at first but the firings and the emotional weight of being responsible for upending people’s lives cause them stress, anxiety, and a desire to break free of their own pains in doing the job they have chosen. While Ryan is content with travel on the road, he hears from his estranged sister, Kara, that his other, younger sister, Julie is getting married. Ryan left home when he first could leave and never looked back, and his family still remembers that. He is the ‘black sheep’ of the family, known to pursue his own gratification while letting his relationships deteriorate over the years.

Having Alex as a love interest has reignited his desire to see his sisters again and to be there for the wedding in northern Wisconsin. Him and Alex are still a bit of a mystery to each other, but they enjoy each other’s company, and he invites her to join him as the +1 guest, not wanting to be the ‘guy alone at the bar’ watching all the couples enjoy a dance together. There are these moments of vulnerability interspersed through ‘Up in The Air’ that remind the audience that all these characters have their own flaws and shortcomings. They are not perfect people, and the film does not judge them outright but allows the audience to decide if they are admirable or detestable or a bit of both. What I love most is that the film director and writers allow us to decide if we agree with Ryan’s choices or if we would have chosen to go the other route in life that he has neglected.

Sometimes, it is never too late to choose a different path than the one that we have set out for ourselves. However, whether we can pull back from previous choices made and to get a fresh start on a new path, is one of the underlying themes of ‘Up in The Air.’ Ryan can try to start a real relationship with Alex, make amends with his sisters and be more present in their lives, and still achieve his 10-million-mile goal but life can get in the way so it’s possible he will not be as successful in salvaging both his relationships, his career goals, and his need for travel. Even if he thinks he can be successful at keeping everybody in his life happy, he may have to make sacrifices as in life, it can be nearly impossible to keep all options available to you.        

The priorities we make now while end up defining us far into the future and there may come a time where the sacrifices, we make in one area may lead to a lack of connection or attachment or fulfilment in another area. Throughout the film during Ryan’s motivational speeches, he talks about the ‘stuff’ in life weighing us down whether it’s our relationships, our possessions, and even our desires. He makes the point in the audience that ‘life can be better footloose’ and not as tied down to suffer from it. However, what the film makes clear is that when you find real happiness in a relationship, can you pivot to slowing down with that heavier backpack you carry around because you feel fulfilled to do so? Can Ryan make room for a real relationship with Alex or his sisters to give up life on the road so his backpack will be heavier, but he’ll still be happier as a result, and maybe that what’s he was missing all this time around?

While Ryan is a ‘road warrior’ and enjoys not being attached to anyone or anything, who will be there for him if he must stay at his scant one-bedroom apartment in Omaha or if he were to be fired from his job where he fires other people. The film brilliantly shows real people who’ve been through real loss in terms of their jobs and livelihoods, and how while it is almost impossible to get through it, they could not keep going on without their responsibility to their families or the love that their families show for them in those tough times. In life, it always helps to have a good support system or to have good people like family motivating you to get you through the tough times.

Ryan may be prepared for a life unattached now, but he may find as he gets older, that his choice to not have many or any attachments at all may lead to the loneliness and pain that then can come from facing life’s hurdles alone, especially when you don’t truly get to know the person because you are so busy traveling and can’t make time for them at all. As Ryan says to his sister Julie’s husband-to-be, Jim, on their wedding day to help him get over his ‘cold feet’ at getting married, “Life’s better with company.”

Anatomy of a Scene – ‘To Know Me Is To Fly With Me’

“He has found a job that allows him to be constantly on the road at a job he is good at without commitments or obligations that would keep him from being who he is.”

Some people are most comfortable on the ground, others down below beneath the sea. Ryan Bingham, however, is most comfortable up in the air. Ryan goes from city to city and from town to town racking up airline miles, staying in recognizable hotels, and sadly letting people go from jobs by helping them with the transition process to a new life. He does the dirty work, which can be quite tense and unforgiving. He does not do his job out of pleasure for helping companies fire people in-person but rather because he likes life on the road and is comfortable being in airports, rental cars, and hotels rather than in a cubicle or a factory day in and day out.

Without going into too much detail about the movie, ‘Up in The Air’, I’m going to focus on two scenes to encompass Ryan’s life on the road and how he should be known best. Ryan is single, not a family man, never been married, and does not go on at length about children because he does not have them. He is driven not by his family or his career per say but rather how his home is his backpack or suitcase and how if he stays still, he loses an essential part of who he is as a person. When other people brag about their kids’ latest success or their wife or husband’s latest accomplish, Ryan instead brags about his quest for ten million airline miles and how he has privileged status with his hotel rewards program.

While others would find Ryan’s lifestyle odd and unusual, he would consider their lifestyle to be the odd and unusual one. He has found a job that allows him to be constantly on the road at a job he is good at without commitments or obligations that would keep him from being who he is. While he enjoys being with people, he is also comfortable on his own and enjoys his own company. He believes that any other way to live would not be as satisfying and for what others dislike about traveling constantly, he relishes it. Ryan does not think anything, or anyone would derail him from continuing this lifestyle even after he reaches his ten million miles goal. If he were to stop, it may be only because he loses his job where he helps to fire people or if he met a woman who could live with his ‘unusual’ lifestyle.

“Fast Friends.”

As the scene ‘to know me is to fly with me’ demonstrates, Ryan’s friendships are often self-serving because he is often on the road and can’t have true friendships but rather ‘fast friendships.’ He is a new kind of person and must go along with his constantly shifting itinerary. Ryan is personable and likes to meet new people such as a man next to him in business class and can relate to another gentleman who likes to be on the road.

Ryan has traveled so much that he knows how to approach a conversation with a stranger sitting next to him. They can discuss family matters, where to go for good food in a specific city, and even about the dreams of the person he is sitting with. He may not have deep friendships but is personable and friendly enough to make a quick connection like he would a flight to a new city without skipping a beat.

Ryan can get the business card, say goodbye forever, and is busy enough to move on without feeling a sense of loss or sadness about not seeing that gentleman he had met and formed a connection with for a few hours just before. As Ryan indicates in his narration, he lives by ‘the margins of his itinerary’ and is committed to his schedule without missing a beat or feeling like he is out of step. Even where there is turbulence, bad airline food, or onerous airline security procedures, Ryan Bingham takes it all in stride. He is not dismayed by any of the various annoyances that plague the travel industry. It is where he feels most at home and is probably the only kind of life he would feel at home with.

“I am home.”

Another scene that compliments the ‘to know me is to fly with me’ deleted scene from the movie is where Ryan’s travel process is shown from beginning to end. Different from ‘fast friends’, Ryan’s job encompasses him helping companies too afraid to fire their employees directly by having him fly around the country and perhaps internationally to do it himself. He says that it’s easy to do it since “he’ll never see them again” but it does not seem like he takes pleasure in it and just uses it to travel for a living. Instead of ‘fast friends’, he may be making ‘fast discontents’ as they blame him for everything bad happening to them at that job even though it’s not his decision to fire them but their boss’s. While Ryan never sees them again like the friendly businessman sitting next to him on the plane, those brief moments of sad or happy coincidence just fall by the wayside when he focuses on his true passion of making the travel lifestyle of his as seamless as possible.

From organizing his TravelPro suitcase easily stored in the overhead bin in any normal jumbo-sized jet plane to making sure his ties and shirts are neatly folded to fit in his suitcase, Ryan fits the bill as a true traveler who knows what to do. “This is where I live.” Ryan says as he drops off his rental car, which he probably rented for free by using his compiled credit card miles. He avoids long check-in lines by having ‘priority access’ with his airline points allowing him such perks as a personalized greeting from one of the airline staff, which is part of sitting in the ’first class’ section of the airplane. While ‘Up in The Air’ was made before TSA Precheck and Global Entry came out as options to avoid long security and U.S. customs lines, you can believe Ryan would have been able to sign up for those perks as well for free due to his accrued airline miles.

From greeting the smiling airline staffer who is aware of his ‘privileged’ status to making it through the TSA check like it is second nature, Ryan is suited up to make himself presentable for the flight but does not forget to wear dress slip on shoes to make the onerous security check process a little bit faster and little less annoying. He gets out the two bins to put through the x-ray machine for his luggage, expertly has his laptop at the top of his carry-on bag ready to be placed in one of the bins and has the slip-on shoes out of his face so fast he does not struggle with getting them back on later. He even folds his suit jacket expertly in half, so it does not wrinkle at all as it goes through the machine and holds his boarding pass out in front of him through the metal detector, so the TSA security agents know he does not have “anything left in his pockets.”

“All the things you probably hate about traveling: the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispenses, the cheap sushi…are warm reminders that I am home. While most people would hate to have a job that makes them the face people have to see when they get fired or would not enjoy constantly being on the road most of the year, if not all of it, Ryan Bingham in ‘Up in The Air’ truly relishes it and would not have it any other way. There are Ryan Bingham’s in the world out there and they live a lifestyle that while unconventional and difficult, is a unique one that deserves some respect as it isn’t easily pulled off especially since as he said, the stuff most people hate about traveling, he really loves, and that is worth admiring about him.

‘A Serious Man’ – Film Review and Analysis

“Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.”

Man can be tested again and again but how exactly he deals with life’s challenges and his overall resolve and mettle will be seen as the measure of his true character. If I had to sum up the excellent movie, ‘A Serious Man’, it is a dark comedy but also a human drama regarding fate, fortune, and whether the role of a higher being can ultimately affect our destiny. Above all else, it is a story of a ‘serious’ man who wants to be taken seriously and seems unable to be granted that not only from his teenage children but also from his estranged wife and it seems from religious leaders in his suburban Jewish community.

‘A Serious Man’ (2009) is an excellent modern-day film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I would imagine have had a similar childhood to the lead character of Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), which is the inspiration for this adapted screenplay, which is brilliantly written and relatable even if you’re not of the Jewish faith. The Coen Brothers both were raised and grew up as Jews in 1960s – 1970s Minnesota near the Twin Cities. It is likely they had to deal with being religious minorities in a mostly goyim (non-Jewish state) as well as with the growing counterculture and changing attitudes towards parental authority, sex, style, personal responsibility, and other societal upheavals including regarding race, gender, and politics.

While the Coen Brothers have had successful movies before and have won Academy Awards for movies such as ‘No Country for Old Men’, this film, ‘A Serious Man’ is quite unique given that it combines both comedic and dramatic elements, usually in the same scene. Overall, it triumphs as a film in doing that and is also laugh-out-loud funny and additionally heart-wrenchingly sad and melancholic. This film was universally praised and as I re-watched the film again after many years, it stands as one of the best films of the 2000s. Not only is the screenplay and writing engaging and insightful but also the acting is top notch thanks to the hard work of Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, among others in the film.

When you consider the main themes of ‘A Serious Man’, you think of several of them that deal with human nature such as upholding your morality under stress, taking care of those closest to you, dealing with adversity and unforeseen hurdles, and how to deal with questions of faith when you feel that you have been abandoned. As I mentioned earlier on, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to be taken seriously given the way he has lived his life and he has strived to do so with his academic and professional accomplishments. Sadly though, he is not only not able to get as much success with his professional pursuits, but he also struggles to hold his personal life together.

Despite how ‘serious’ of a man Larry thinks he is, those in his life can’t help but not take him seriously or choose not to. Instead of reassessing his actions and trying to make some behavioral changes or work on any personal defects he may has in addressing his challenges, Larry instead challenges his faith in God and wonders if the Rabbis of his synagogue will have the answers to the questions God has challenged Larry with.

As the film starts out, Larry appears to be relatively successful as a Physics professor waiting to be tenured. He teaches his classes, does research (albeit has not published anything), and enjoys the work he does. Larry is married with two teenage children and a modest house in the suburbs. Him and his family want for nothing, and it looks like he has everything you could want out of life on the surface.

As appearances can be deceiving, the film breaks down how one man’s life can be turned upside down and inferring what events beyond Larry’s control could have tipped his fortune to be negative, as in a curse, years or centuries ago. It is a series of events that tend to turn Larry’s life upside down even when he has not done anything wrong. A Korean student in his Physics class tries to bribe Larry to get a better grade and leaves before Larry can return the money and punish him for the illegal act.

Larry also comes home to his wife, Judith, who asks him for a divorce and for a ‘gett’ or permission to do so she can remarry within the faith to Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) who everyone takes seriously as a ‘Serious Man’ except for Larry. Larry is envious of Sy to some degree and feels like he has everything given to him whereas Larry has had to work hard for his success. Suddenly, ‘the domino effect’ of one negative event after another happens including Larry losing his home, access to his bank accounts, his marriage, and even his relationship to his teenage children become estranged.

This string of unfortunate events has Larry looking to cast judgment on God and questioning his faith in Judaism. Larry goes to three different rabbis whose advice and counsel does not help him any further. He cannot relate to what they tell them especially as the eldest, he considers to be too unavailable or unwilling and the youngest rabbi being too inexperienced or immature, who end up wasting his time. The 2nd and wisest rabbi give him the advice through an allegory, that while fictional, has a good message to it ends up helping Larry the most that God can only provide the questions, but you must find your own answers. The best way the 2nd rabbi implies to Larry is that he must “help himself by helping others.”

Essentially, Larry Gopnik must look beyond his own pain and selfish wants and look to control what he can and do what he can to get his life back on track. Larry can also do ‘mitzvahs’ especially regarding his own family. Larry’s younger brother, Arthur, is homeless and not mentally sound so Larry tries to get him on his feet but struggles to find the money or the resources to help his brother with his many troubles. He still attempts to maintain better relations with his kids, his soon to be ex-wife, and with his work colleagues. Without spoiling the rest of the movie, Larry understands that he must look to help others rather than looking to God to intervene. While ‘The Boss’ is present to give questions, the answers must come from within.

How Larry stands up to challenges and adversity is like the Torah’s stories about men like Job and Jonah who had their lives thrown into upheaval but were able to get over the anguish by holding true to their faith in God but looking inwards in their own strength, knowledge, and belief in morality and good will to make it through on the other side better than before. Life throws challenges at us every day and how we react to them and try to get through it with our God-given wisdom, kindness, compassion, patience, and reasoning will decide how far we can proceed in life to get back to being successful. Fortune is not everlasting, and faith will not provide good fortune. What can provide good fortune is to do your best, help yourself and others around you, and look to your own inner beliefs and values to guide you through the tough times.

‘A Serious Man’ is about a man who considers himself to be serious but has to struggle for others to call him ‘serious.’ In an effort to be taken seriously, Larry does end up struggling to fulfill the other important parts of his life that require his attention. He can forget to be loving and caring to his wife, attentive and helpful to his children, and more involved within the Jewish community including at his son’s Hebrew school. Larry is not a bad man but the cracks in his life cause some bad events to happen including events for which there is no logical explanation. Larry does his best to be a good man and although he is flawed, bad things happen out of nowhere to him.

The test throughout this excellent film is how do you claw back from adversity and try to give yourself the best shot at having good things happen in your life. Even if your family may appear to be cursed or have a string of bad fortune dating back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, how do you turn it around so your son or your daughter don’t deal with the same tragedies and setbacks? There are no easy answers in ‘A Serious Man’ but the Coen Brothers make it clear that it is not wise to look to God to solve the problems for you or provide the answers.

The central message of this film is not just for Jews but for all people. God may have provided life’s questions for you to answer but it’s up to you alone to answer them throughout your life. While you may lose faith in hose providing counsel or advice or in the religion itself, the film makes clear that you have to believe in yourself, to help yourself pull through the pain and sorrow, and to help other people, especially the family and friends closest to you, who are going through tough times as well, whose aid and assistance you can provide may be able to help you get to the right direction in life again and to lead you to a better place than you were before.

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