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Literature / Up in the Air

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"Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star-Crossed Lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks."
Ryan Bingham

Up in the Air is a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, which later became a 2009 film directed and co-written by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick who all received Oscar nominations.

Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney in the film) is a motivational speaker and Career Transition Counselor whose job takes him all over the country to lay off corporate workers. He has no concern for his "clients" whose careers he "transitions" into unemployment, and his primary ambition in life seems to be to become the seventh person ever to accumulate ten million frequent flier miles. Everything changes when two new women enter his life: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), an attractive businesswoman living a life seemingly identical to his, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a freshly graduated new employee who introduces a new tool for employee axing: video conference calls. Ryan's boss agrees with Natalie that this is the way of the future: no more traveling counselors, no more plane tickets, no more time wasted traveling to and from and inside airports. For Ryan, who lives out of his carry on luggage and spends more than three hundred days of the year on the road, this represents a threat to his entire way of life.

But maybe his entire way of life was meant to change. His youngest sister is getting married. He's growing closer to Alex (on a romantic level) and to Natalie (on a more paternal level), and he begins to reevaluate his place in the world.

The novel is written as a conversation between Ryan and a seatmate — the reader — aboard a flight. His life on the road and his relationship with his family is covered in more depth, and the aspect of the character as a Career Transition Counselor is downplayed in favor of his status as a would-be novelist and a semi-successful business coach. The quest to reach a million frequent flier miles is more central in the novel than in The Film of the Book. The entire plot takes place over a few days, while his resignation letter is sitting on his boss' desk. He is also apparently being headhunted for a job with MythTech, a mysterious business operating out of Omaha, Nebraska.

This work features examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film and book diverge quite a bit, but both are well-received.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Natalie's plot and character were created for the film adaptation.
  • Adapted Out: Sandor "Sandy" Pinter, a legendary management consultant, has a significant role in the book but doesn't appear in the movie.
  • Ambiguous Ending: While it seems like Ryan's life didn't change whatsoever and that he might just be stuck in it at this point (especially with things ending badly with Alex), his decision to gift his sister and her new husband with miles so they can travel the world and heading to the airport to just "pick a place and go" also open it up to the idea that even if he's stuck now, he'll get out of it soon enough.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Ryan showcases that Natalie's "video-chat hatchet man" method is this by having her do a role-play with him and his faked employee going completely berserk and pointing out that she doesn't have the guts to actually be with him in the same room and walking away (and because she's supposedly talking to him through a computer, she obviously can't follow him to try to reassure him). This, and the fact Ryan points out that Natalie is a rookie in the business and thus blind-sided with his reactions, protects his work for a while longer.
  • Berserk Button: In the book, don't touch Ryan's miles; really, really bad idea.
  • Big Brother Instinct: In the book, there's nothing it seems Ryan wouldn't do for his little sister Julie, except give her some of his miles. Present to a lesser extent in the film. In the movie, he does indeed give her his miles; a wedding gift of five hundred thousand frequent flyer miles each for her and her new husband — enough for them to get a round-the-world ticket. (They can't afford a honeymoon.)
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • In the book Ryan reveals that he has an appointment at the Mayo Clinic due to his blackouts and memory loss, and that he isn't telling anyone in case it's bad news.
    • The film has Ryan (bitterly) questioning his life after finding out that the one person in his life (Alex) is already married. The sweet part is his humanity apparently returning after he not only gives Natalie a glowing recommendation for her dream job, he gifts a round-the-world trip for his sister and her new husband after he finds out they cannot afford a honeymoon. There's also the implication Ryan is now looking for more purpose in his life moving forward as well and not just aimlessly going from place to place anymore. See Ambiguous Ending.
  • Black Comedy: A more downplayed example, considering it's about layoffs.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • Played for laughs in the beginning when firing one particular employee:
      Steve: How do I get in touch with you?
      Ryan: Don't worry, we'll be in touch with you soon. This is just the beginning.
      Steve: (Nods, shuts the door)
      Ryan: (Narrating) I'll never see Steve again.
    • After one firing victim follows through on a threat and commits suicide by jumping off a bridge, Craig asks Ryan if he remembers anyone who stands out. Despite remembering the woman Natalie fired who made the suicidal comment he denies it to protect Natalie. Craig doesn't look convinced but doesn't push the issue.
  • Body Double (Real Life version): That wasn't really Vera Farmiga nude from behind; she had just given birth and was breastfeeding at the time and thought it wouldn't work.
  • Book Ends: The real-life employees talking about what a job means to them, and what it means to them when they no longer have it.
  • Break the Motivational Speaker: Played With Ryan's family breaks his motivational speaking career.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Implied in the book; Ryan compares his relationship with his little sister Julie in their adolescence to a romance, which involved him sneaking her into the movies, and "climaxed" when she put her head on his shoulder during a love scene in said movie.
  • Business Trip Adultery: Ryan finds out Alex was using her time away on business trips to cheat on her husband.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: When Ryan is told that one woman they fired committed suicide, he doesn't remember anything about her, as is the case with every employee he has to lay off. This could also be to avoid any conflict or protect Natalie from finding out.
  • But Now I Must Go: Whether or not it's because of the woman she and Ryan fired who jumped off a bridge, Natalie decides she can't deal with the job anymore, quits and then leaves without a second thought.
  • Call-Back: "That was a nice touch." "Thanks."
  • The Charmer: In true George Clooney fashion. As shown with Bob, Ryan's ability to help ease the tremendous distress of many of the people he fires makes him good at his job.
  • Consummate Professional: Ryan Bingham knows everything there is to know about his profession.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ryan. Being played by George Clooney makes him this by default.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Ryan races to be with Alex, but he discovers that she has a family and a husband and has no interest in starting a life with him.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Alex: "Think of me as yourself with a vagina". Also, and more subtly, it is implied that Ryan sees quite a lot of himself in Natalie, who is sort of an Alternate Past to Alex's Alternate Present.
  • Double Entendre: Ryan and Alex's conversation about travel perks often has a double meaning, such as when they're discussing Ryan's huge flier mileage.
    Alex: Come on, impress me. I bet it's huge.
    Ryan: You have no idea.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ryan says that people he's firing say this a lot, but they never go through with it. When Natalie asks if he knows that because he checks the obituaries; Ryan stresses that she really shouldn't do that. One layoff victim actually does do it.
  • Dumped via Text Message: Natalie's boyfriend dumps her via text message while she's on a business trip, causing her to have a meltdown in the middle of a hotel lobby.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Ryan realizes just how unhappy he is in his life and that he has isolated himself from everyone around him. Natalie is forced to face the consequences of her actions, both in her job and personal life. Both become better people for it, even though their eventual fates remain unknown.
  • Expy:
    • Sam Elliot's character is almost exactly the same as the one he played in The Big Lebowski.
    • Undoubtedly merely a coincidence, but Natalie is strikingly similar (if gender flipped) to Carter Duryea, Topher Grace's character in In Good Company.
  • Firing Day: A central theme of the story. The message is that despite the cold, calloused methodology behind Ryan's company, there are ways to make firing people more humane.
    Ryan: Our job is to make limbo tolerable - to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread and humiliation to the point where hope is dimly visible...and then to stop the boat, shove'em in the water, and make them swim.
  • Flexibility Equals Sex Ability: When Alex tells Ryan she's done a Mile-High Club, he wonders how (meaning getting away with it without anyone noticing), and she playfully replies that she's "really flexible". The scene cuts to then going into an apartment together shortly after.
  • Foil: Ryan is a veteran of the "hatchet man" job and knows what is necessary to make fired people react well to the situation. Natalie's "firing through video chat" idea and her inexperience in the job (to not mention her trying to approach dealing with people with things like situational flow charts and factoids) screams Industrialized Evil and, as pointed out by Ryan early on, makes those that are fired much more nervous.
  • Foreshadowing: Ryan points out early on that Natalie has no experience as a hatchet woman and that her idea of firing people through video chats just makes people more nervous. Sure enough, after a little while under Ryan's tutelage she still is too wet behind the ears and when she tries her "revolutionary" method, the man she fires got so nervous that he commits suicide the very same day.
  • Going Postal: While Ryan explains why is it necessary to maintain a personal touch in the hatchet man business, a montage of reactions from Zack Galifianakis' cameo character being fired are shown. One of these is him opening fire at his old workplace with a hunting rifle.
  • Happily Ever After: Natalie has successfully recovered from putting her dreams on hold "for a boy" and is now in pursuit of said dreams, her life touched positively by Ryan. Rather than be shattered by the realization that his ultimate goal was devoid of value, Ryan immediately begins to bring value by donating the round-the-world tickets to his sister and her new husband. He is on the path to reconnecting with his family AND has been vindicated professionally and has carte blanche to travel all he wants again. Essentially, he has retained all of his old power and perks while also regaining his capacity for normal human bonds. He has his cake and gets to eat it too. It is the happiest possible ending within the internal logic of the story.
    • It could just as easily be argued to be Bittersweet. He has learned a little of the importance of having a real life and family, but at the expense of the one love (Alex) he has ever known. He's being forced back into the field when he seems to have acquitted himself to the video firing software, which means he likely won't have the time to reconnect with his family and find a real relationship anymore. The tone of the closing narration hammers this home: the Ryan Bingham at the beginning of the movie would have loved to be in that situation. The Ryan Bingham at the end, not so much.
  • Hate Sink: Alex Goran, much like Ryan Bingham, is a carefree frequent Flyer. The two hit it off for the whole movie and Ryan starts to fall for her until he eventually discovers Alex kept a huge secret from him: she has a husband and two young sons in Chicago. Dismissing Ryan as "someone who's lost," Alex also calls Ryan to tell him that "that's [her] real life" and that he's only "an escape" to her. She also condescendingly calls herself "a grown-up" and half-heartedly tells him to "give [her] a call," resulting in Ryan calmly hanging up.
  • Hypocrite: Alex claims to be the mature "grown-up" in the situation when Ryan discovers she's married, but comes off as immature and refusing to admit her own infidelity is deceitful and how Ryan should've known better than to develop feelings while he was otherwise very upfront about how closed off he was from the start. The fact that he told the truth about himself while she didn't only makes her look worse.
  • Inhuman Resources: Ryan is the Hatchet Man variety.
  • Irony: Natalie, who has devised a system where she informs people of terrible news in a remote, impersonal way, gets terrible news (her breakup) delivered to her in a remote, impersonal way (through text.)
    Alex: He broke up with you over text message?
    Ryan: [dryly] That's kind of like firing someone over the Internet.
    • Becomes a Bookend when she quits via text message.
  • It's All About Me: Alex kicks the dog when she gets mad at Ryan for showing up unexpectedly at her doorstep. She is married with children and cheats on her husband with him, but she neglects to tell him, essentially manipulating his feelings. Yet she yells at him because he could've destroyed her family, when it would be her fault, since she played both sides and he had no way of knowing, since he was one of those two sides.
  • It Meant Something to Me: Ryan's phone conversation with Alex is this, as she chews him out for showing up to her house, where the husband and kids she never mentioned could've seen him. She lets him know that all Ryan is to her is a fun fling and nothing more, while Ryan's hurt responses after finally opening his heart to someone is this trope.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Ryan is closer to a Jerk with a Heart of Gold (fires people for a living and is emotionally detached, but is actually a fairly decent guy underneath it all), but some of the more jerkish things he says do turn out to be correct.
    • While he does have selfish motives for hating Natalie's "let's fire people through video chat" business plan, his claim that it makes the people being fired nervous and uncomfortable is proven right.
    • Ryan may not have been particularly nice to Natalie when having her mock-fire him, but he correctly points out that seemingly small slip-ups could result in serious legal consequences for a company if a firing is handled incorrectly and that Natalie is too inexperienced to understand it.
    • While Natalie is understandably offended at his stereotyping of various airplane passengers, it really does get them through the security line that much faster.
    • While Ryan views them as "pussies who don't have the balls to sack their own employees", he also admits that employers who hire him to carry out firings are justified in being wary of extreme reactions and wanting to have a professional on board who can handle them better.
  • Karma Houdini: Aside from Ryan figuring her out, Alex isn't seen getting caught cheating on her husband.
  • Kick the Dog: Alex calling Ryan "an escape" from "[her] family…[her] real life", meaning he meant nothing to her beyond that.
  • Limited Wardrobe: George Clooney's entire wardrobe for the film actually did fit into a single carry-on bag. Anna Kendrick took it a step further, wearing a single outfit (sometimes with the jacket; sometimes without) for the entire film.
  • Lonely Bachelor Pad: The apartment that Ryan keeps in Omaha is sparsely furnished with an almost empty refrigerator.
  • Married to the Job: One of the main themes. Discussed and played with; Ryan "spends 322 days on the road, which means he has to spend 43 miserable days at home", which is very convenient for a man who doesn't want to have a real life.
  • May–December Romance: Defied between Ryan and Natalie.
    Natalie: No, I don't even think of him that way! He's old.
  • Meaningful Name: Natalie Keener.
  • Never My Fault: Alex justifies cheating on her husband and putting her family at risk as needing "an escape" from her "real life" and blames Ryan for not getting that and thinking they were getting closer.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Ryan's expression screams this when Alex walks up to see him hugging a crying Natalie. That being said, Alex seems more amused than shocked and quickly listens to them about what's really going on.
  • Odd Friendship: Ryan and Natalie.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Ryan has one in the scene with Bob where he creates the best-case scenario for the employee losing his job. As a result, it reasonably feels like Ryan is giving him a real shot to chase his dreams.
    • As unsympathetic as her later actions are, Alex does help talk Natalie through her break up.
  • Political Correctness Is Evil: Discussed. Natalie objects to Ryan's stereotyping of families with children, Middle Easterners, the elderly, and Asians. Ryan counters by demonstrating how racial profiling really is a thing, and how choosing who one stands behind in the security line really does streamline the entire process.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • At the opening of the movie, a guy whom Ryan fires asks him "Who the fuck are you?" and Clooney, (as Bingham) says, "Excellent question. Who the fuck am I?" explaining that he fires people for a living, working for a company that provides his services to bosses that are "too big a pussy" to do the job themselves.
    • Bob to Natalie. Jason Reitman said he loves working with J.K. Simmons because he is one the best cursers in Hollywood.
  • Product Placement: All over the place in the movie. American Airlines, Hertz, Travelpro, and Hilton Hotels feature prominently. The scenes shot in Detroit used Northwest'snote  terminal with all of the signage covered up less-than gracefully by American posters. However, the gate podiums clearly show Northwest and Continental, albeit blurred out.
  • Punch-Clock Villain:
    • The distraught people who are fired initially paint Ryan in a negative light although he's shown to be an affable person when not on the job. His dismayed reaction towards virtual firing later demonstrates that he understands the emotional stake in firing people for a living. Not only is Ryan simply doing his job, but he's doing it in the most delicate matter one can when firing people.
    • Alex implies and justifies that her cheating on her husband is only born out of needing breaks from "[her] real life".
  • Race for Your Love: Subverted. Ryan arrives, and Alex opens the door to reveal kids and a husband. Later, she confirms over the phone that he can't be more than a side affair to her.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Natalie to Ryan.
    Natalie: The isolation, the travelling, is that supposed to be charming? It's a cocoon of self-banishment...You have set up a way of life that basically makes it impossible for you to make any kind of human connection. And now, this woman comes along and somehow runs the gauntlet of your ridiculous life choice and comes out on the other end smiling just so you can call her casual? I need to grow up? You're a twelve-year-old!
    • Alex delivers another one to Ryan after he shows up at her front door in a big romantic gesture, ignorant of the fact that she's married with kids. She later tells him how utterly meaningless their "relationship" was to her, at one point unloading the absolutely brutal line, "You are a parenthesis."
  • Road Trip Plot: A road movie with planes and airports.
  • Scenery Porn: The cameraman practically froze to death trying to get them, so you better like the slowly panning aerial shots of cloudlines and cityscapes.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Natalie quits by text message.
  • Sequel Hook: The story is easily open to continue, be it however Ryan's life goes moving forward, Alex's double life being a powder keg ready to blow and Natalie beginning her new job elsewhere.
  • Shipper on Deck: Natalie for Ryan and Alex.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Ryan responds to Alex justifying using him as "an escape" from "[her] real life" by calmly and silently hanging up the phone.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Natalie's boyfriend is on screen for less than ten seconds, as well as a brief Newhart Phone Call, before dumping her, after following him to Omaha set Natalie up at Ryan's company in the first place.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Natalie is all business and ice. Or tries to be.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: In the novel, Ryan is haunted by mysterious charges on his credit card and against his frequent flier miles, leading him to suspect identity theft. Though left ambiguous, it seems by the end of the novel that it's Ryan whose been making these charges after all.
  • The Unfair Sex: Not only is Alex married with children, but she never tells Ryan about it; yet she's the one who gets mad at him because he could've destroyed her family by him showing up unexpectedly at her doorstep. Which he couldn't have known, since, you know, she deliberately withheld it from him.
  • Unusual Euphemism: A rare example that has nothing to do with sex, but is very unsettling: "Career Transition Counselor". He makes your transit into unemployment.
  • Villain Protagonist: Subverted. At first the story toys with the idea that people who fire other people for a living with a callous detachment as part of their job description are yuppiesque, contemptible sharks, but the story also points out that they have their humanity. And they are merely the bearers of bad news not the cause.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: When Ryan finally achieves his mileage goal, he's very apathetic about it.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: Natalie has one of these, but she does remember sneaking out in the morning. Ryan says that's the better choice over sticking around for breakfast.

Alternative Title(s): Up In The Air