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"Up in the Air"

March 1, 2010
By Nancy Heller Moskowitz, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, AMHCA’s Public Awareness, Advocacy & Marketing Committee

What does make a person change? This question is pondered by many, discussed by some, and given a voice in “Up in the Air,” director Jason Reitman’s newest hit. Reitman also directed “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking.” Mental health counselors may want to consider using scenes from this film with clients who are struggling to make changes in their life.

The film’s three main characters are Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). Ryan is an accomplished “executive efficiency expert,” which means that he is hired by firms to fire people. Ryan is charming and aloof, good at his job, and very good at living his life unattached to anyone—until he meets Natalie and Alex. Natalie represents his earlier persona, and Alex states, “I’m like you, only with a vagina.”

When Ryan’s Nebraska-based company hires Natalie—an eager, new college graduate—to do the same job Ryan does and gives her the go-ahead to revamp how they do their job, Ryan is visibly upset. He likes traveling more than 300 days a year. He doesn’t want to get “grounded” because he likes being, literally, up in the air. He manages to get his boss’ approval to stay on the road, on one condition, that he take Natalie along with him and show her the ropes.

The scene at the airport where Natalie is dragging a large suitcase behind her sets up the viewers for Ryan’s mantra. Streamline your life! In less than three minutes, he has her unpack her suitcase at the airport and shows her how to use a weekender bag to take all that she will need for the trip.

Another one of Ryan’s talents is giving motivational speeches on getting rid of excess physical and emotional baggage. Clooney does a great job in the scene where he is shown delivering one of his speeches. He is alone on a stage that is empty except for a table and a backpack. He asks the audience, “What’s in your backpack?” He asks them to imagine how much their backpacks weigh as he unpacks the contents of his backpack on stage. He also asks, “Who are you carrying in your backpack? Do you want to continue to carry this load?” What a visually perfect way to get a client to look at his or her roadblocks to change.

Natalie has moved to Omaha to be with her boyfriend and live the good life. She plans to help Ryan’s company save money by firing people over the computer using videoconferencing. Reitman does a masterful job directing the scene in which Natalie first attempts to fire people face-to-face. In the film, some of the actors are actually real people who were fired from their job. After one man learns he is being let go, he begins to cry, saying, “I’m 57. Now what am I going to do?” Something real happens and Natalie begins to cry, too. Another upset employee even tells Natalie that she will commit suicide. Natalie runs out of the office and Ryan follows. She asks him if he thinks the woman will kill herself, and he tells her that they say they will, but never do. An interesting twist happens later in the movie: the woman does take her life, and Natalie leaves the company and returns to San Francisco.

Alex Goran is Ryan Bingham in a skirt. She travels, likes to have fun sexually, and intentionally stays unattached. She and Ryan have some very good scenes together mirroring each other. A special scene shows them after making love, sitting at a table facing each other with their laptops, planning another future meeting. Alex shows Ryan his weaknesses. She has a secret, which we don’t learn until the end of the film, that truly transforms Ryan’s character.

“Up in the Air” reflects the current tough economic situation in our country. It abounds with examples of how people who are fired have fewer choices than before. It examines how characters behave and react. Some reviewers have called this a romantic comedy. While the film does have romance, I believe most people will respond to its deeper messages. This is the kind of film that grows on you and expands as it is discussed. Enjoy the discussion with colleagues and consider using specific scenes with clients.

Until next time,