The refreshingly mixed message of “Up in the Air” (Spoiler alert!)

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Up in the Air yet, please note that the following blog post by necessity gives away the ending. It’s still a good and worthy film even if you know the ending in advance, but be forewarned.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a hired-gun consultant whose job is to fire people. In addition to breaking the bad news to terminated employees, his company’s purpose is to ease their difficult transition into an unwelcoming job market and theoretically a new job (although there is no evidence in the film that this happens). In today’s economy, as you might imagine, business is booming.

Bingham spends most of his life “up in the air” going from city to city, accumulating an unprecedented number of frequent-flyer miles and hotel and and rental car loyalty points. As we quickly learn, Bingham wouldn’t have it any other way: Living out of a suitcase enables him to avoid entangling commitments to family, friends, and potential love interests. He even enjoys a side business as a motivational speaker, urging his audiences to “empty their backpack” of things in life that weigh them down, the most important of which is—you guessed it—people.

Bingham’s attitude is an affront to Natalie, a bright young colleague he’s mentoring. Natalie is herself experiencing a difficult break-up, which would seemingly affirm Bingham’s commitment-free viewpoint—see what happens when you risk loving someone?—but Bingham isn’t cruel. He doesn’t want to want to live this way; it’s just that life is short, and his way is most practical. Natalie is also a stand-in for the audience: when she challenges Bingham to grow up and risk an adult relationship, fraught though it is with potential heartache, we’re on her side.

Up to this point, aside from the dark undercurrent of people’s lives being turned upside down by unemployment, which the film does not play for laughs, Up in the Air could be a conventional romantic comedy. In fact, the filmmakers are obviously playing on the audience’s expectations. We know where this film is going, especially when Bingham falls for Alex, a fellow-traveler who shares Bingham’s nomadic lifestyle. (See this clip.) Bingham is a handsomer version of Tom Hanks’s character in any number of other films; Alex is a ditz-free version of Meg Ryan’s. Yet the chemistry between the two characters (credit Clooney and co-star Vera Farmiga) is so sparkling and warm, we don’t care that we’ve (mostly) seen it before. In Alex, Bingham has met his Waterloo. He will finally admit defeat and settle down with his soulmate.

And, well… he tries. But unlike every other conventional romantic comedy, Alex is unavailable and uninterested. To Bingham’s heartbreaking surprise, Alex has a double-secret life of a husband and kids at home. She describes this to him as her “real life,” to which Bingham replies, “I thought I was part of your real life.” Having been chastened by unrequited love, Bingham resumes his life up in the air. The End—well, almost. The movie catches up with characters we’ve seen earlier who were fired by Bingham. They’re still out of work, but each of them describes how their loved ones—spouses, children, and friends—give their lives meaning and strength.

This is an unnecessarily heavy-handed touch. Are the filmmakers afraid that by robbing us of the happy ending we want and expect, they approve of Bingham’s pessimistic outlook? Do they feel as if they need to tell us, “We really believe in love after all”? The movie is in too deep for such glibness. In other words, because the film has told its story so convincingly, the audience feels genuinely unsettled. A sop to sentimentality at the end won’t cut it. The film challenges us to see the world through Bingham’s eyes and wonder if he isn’t onto something.

And what’s wrong with that? After all, are the happy endings that these films normally serve up realistic? Do we really believe Bingham would have found lasting happiness and fulfillment if he had been able to marry Alex and settle down? Can another person bring us joy?

The Christian answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” By all means, human love points us in the direction of lasting happiness. Bingham is “getting warmer,” he’s moving closer to the center, when his bold action confesses his love for Alex. But the fulfillment to his life’s deepest need isn’t ultimately found there; it’s found only in God through Jesus Christ. Right? To look for this kind of fulfillment in another person is to settle for something less than God. Love becomes idolatry. God is love, as 1 John says, but love is not God. Yet, think of how often this “love is God” message is communicated in popular culture. Think of how often we buy into it!

The film doesn’t offer God as the answer—this is a mainstream Hollywood movie, after all—but at least it raises the right questions.

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