'Up in the Air': A Look Back in Anger


Would it be okay, now that everyone knows the “surprise” ending of the film Up in the Air, for me to lodge a formal protest against the catastrophic sexual politics of this movie?

I’m not even going to get into how George Clooney tells the “regular guy” who is losing his job that now, after decades spent building a career that is suddenly, unexpectedly ending, now this man ought to go “follow his dream” and somehow become a French chef. (“Let them bake cake”?? Is that what we are reduced to, here, and by Jason Reitman, scion of privilege? Or maybe like in Reitman’s other films, which strike me as being similarly black-hearted vehicles of pure nihilism, he is blackly kidding and we’re meant to feel the total emptiness of Clooney’s now-go-be-a-chef pep-talk.)

Instead, please consider the character of Vera Farmiga as Clooney’s think-of-me-as-yourself-with-a-vagina popsy, Alex. (Spoilers-if this were last year-follow.) This Alex hops around the country in connection with her job, and makes dates with George Clooney now and then so they can go have sex in a hotel. When Clooney begins inexplicably to yearn for domestic bliss, he shows up unannounced at her place only to find that she was married-with-children all along. She sends him off with a flea in his ear. “This is my real life,” she tells him, adding, “you’re a parenthesis,” thereby demonstrating, in addition to her other defects, a serious lack of grammatical discernment. Anyway, at the end, he’s all devastated and alone, etc.

Ms. Farmiga in interviews describes the character of Alex as “delicious” and empowered and dignified, if you can believe. She is “thriving in a man’s world,” according to ScreenCrave:

Vera had the rare opportunity to play a female character who was in control of her romantic situation. Reitman is known for writing powerful female characters, and Up in the Air’s Alex is no different. Farmiga liked her tone and attitude and saw her flaws as strengths instead of weaknesses.

“I thought it was a really interesting portrayal of female desire that you don’t often get to see. Usually when a female character is so demanding in her sexuality and unapologetic she usually lacks some dignity. It was cool to see someone who’s completely self-possessed, had class, had depth and yet was operating in a very masculine way. From the start she set up her parameters and said these are the rules, come in for the enjoyment of it and just think of me as yourself.”

Alex isn’t your run of the mill career driven woman. She has multiple layers that are revealed to the audience in due time during the film.

“This is a woman, complicated, complex has needs, and has certain desires. [I didn’t want] to judge her actions but just embody her and make her as full bodied as possible and human. That’s what’s so incredible about Jason’s characters in all of his films thus far, you don’t necessarily like them or condone their behavior but they are utterly human, [with their] eccentricities and deficiencies and everything that makes us imperfect.”

There you have it. The new, unapologetic, sexually demanding female who is no longer bound by outmoded conventions, and she goes, girl, flaws and all.

But this woman is not dignified, she is psychotic. Also infantile and self-indulgent, without the slightest shred of depth or reflection. What can this woman’s “real life” marriage possibly amount to? Who is taking her kids to their frackin’ piano lessons while she boffs George Clooney in an airport hotel? “Class”? Are you serious?

So women can behave as badly, faithlessly and selfishly as men! (yay!) Now we’re equal. I can’t really fathom what kind of an insight this is supposed to be.

There is so much real grief and pain around the idea of forming working long-term relationships in this culture. In this movie the actual subject is not even so much trivialized as wholly evaded. There’s a really de-haut-en-bas thing of look, what a mess these people are, through what amounts to a monocle of privilege and distanced elitism. Mr. Reitman’s movies give the impression of being very much made about “regular people,” meaning someone else. He’s like the polar opposite of Charlie Kaufman.

When really, it’s imperative that viable means of making these things work be addressed. What we could really use would be some exceptional, excellent ideas about how such relationships can be made more satisfying, richer, better, last longer. It’s not a prescriptive aesthetic/moral position I’d like to see, but an investigational one, predicated on the possibility of finding pragmatic solutions to our loneliness and stuff.

In real life it seems to be quite a widely held view that your free-spirited sleeparounds do not make for even remotely viable, let alone pleasant, long-term companions. The manner in which single people are apt to talk about a potential mate tends to be remarkably free of the above-described Farmiga philosophy. Up in the Air invites women to consider what it would be like to be Alex-but never what it would be like to be married to her. (I guess being married to her would be something like being married to Jesse James?) Unsurprisingly, the cuckolded husband doesn’t make a moment’s appearance in this movie, because it would only underscore the real banality and narcissism at the heart of it.

I don’t believe that conventional domestic arrangements will automatically work for everyone. There may really be new ways that serious relationships can be negotiated. I suspect not, but that is because I am a pterodactyl. At the threshold of adulthood, especially, many of us believe that we will be the first person in the history of the world whose leg will fail to shoot up in obedience to the little rubber hammer of human nature. Okay, maybe so! Experiment away.

But do we have to go back to the nineteenth century to find a love story in which two people have connected with each other and value one another to the extent that they are capable of restraining a certain percentage of their carnal appetites in order to protect that connection? Surely, any marriage worth having in the first place would entirely preclude boffing a sad not-even middle manager in an airport hotel, when schedules permit? I can’t get past the idea that is just not the kind of thing you can do when someone else’s welfare and happiness are in the palm of your hand.

So please, explain this to me, how we’re supposed to watch a movie like this and even countenance these characters, “with their flaws.” No. This woman- she is a cold-eyed monster. How is it possible to admire anything about her, when nobody you know would really want that, for her life?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and

Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.