Ok picture this: it’s Friday night and I’m out of town. I’m missing the kids and images of Haiti’s disaster are all I can find on TV. The devastation and desperation and empty faces of the people in shock whose worlds have been destroyed are too much and since I am in the comfort of my own hotel room I have the luxury of turning the channel. I run through the channels a few times and when I find nothing I want to watch, I am once again reminded that not having cable at home is really no big loss. I end up on the in room movie channel and see that one of the options is Up in the Air with George Clooney and watch the preview.
I don’t normally watch movies when I am out of town, it seems somehow a bit pathetic to me to watch a movie alone in a hotel room and yet the draw of George Clooney was just too much (think OH YEAH from Ferris Bueller) and I ordered it up. I am not sure what I expected, a little romance perhaps with what I assumed would be a happy ending, but what I got was different and surprising. This was not a fantastic movie in any traditional sense but it really unsettled me and made me think. The movie is about a guy whose whole life is spent on the road going from place to place to fire people when their employer is downsizing. He is on the road over 300 days per year and despite the harsh reality of his job he has remained able to see the emotional toll his news takes on those he is firing and often he is able to offer some support that it is clear as the movie goes on is truly felt and not just a script to get through the process. At the start of the movie, he is happy and fulfilled and feels completely at home on the road. He is much less at home in his sterile apartment which is sparsely furnished and lacks any signs of individuality.
Although happy and fulfilled, his world is undergoing change. A young woman has been hired by his firm to streamline the process of firing others employees and her plan is to implement a remote IT hookup and have a video conference to fire the employee, saving her consulting firm a truckload of money in the travel costs. This results in a crisis for George Clooney’s character since his whole identity depends on the lack of a home base and his itinerant life suits him. He convinces his boss that the young woman proposing the changes needs to go on the road and actually do the job first and so she is sent with him on a long stretch of city to city firings. Although it seems self serving at first, it becomes clearer that he actually does seem to care that he offer genuine support to these victims of downsizing and as such soften the blow of reality. His protégé is naïve and young and righteous in a college student sort of way and gradually learns the nuances and shades of grey of the world with him.
In many ways though, her earnest idealism and romantic world view push him to think differently about his solitary life. She is in a serious relationship when the movie opens and at times is trying to convince George that his lack of connection to others has to be lonely and incomplete. As I listened to each side of their discussion, I felt a connection with both. I am in the process of divorce and want to believe that I will be perfectly content on my own. Happy to live each day in my own skin and make choices that are all my own, and yet, I also felt that the idea of spending life without a real and consistent connection with someone else, a constant in my life could be very lonely at times. It didn’t make me question my decision about the divorce but it did make me think about my earnest sense of independence and the lack of need for others in my life. I thought about the fact that I have the kids and my family and friends and perhaps that would be enough but as the movie progressed and I felt more and more that having a person to share the big and little things in life with does add a richness that can’t be found in other ways.
I think I am jaded by my experience in marriage, which in many ways has been a lonely existence despite the presence of another person, and so I am not naïve enough to think that just because you are with someone the sense of connection and grounding will be there. But I do see that if you can have that connection with someone else that is real and genuine there is an added richness to everyday life. And yet, as I embark on these unchartered waters alone, I must plan to be happy and content on my own. I have been closer to my brothers and other friends of late and of course I have the kids but none of these relationships is as constant, deep and rich as a partner in life (and they shouldn’t be).
As the movie progressed, George met a woman who also travels a ton and they had an instant connection. They saw each other when their travel plans coincided and then began communicating regularly even when they couldn’t be together. He slowly but surely fell in love with her and when he had to return to his childhood home to attend his sister’s wedding, he asked her to join him. She did. Over that weekend, George had to confront the reality and messiness of relationships as one of his sisters was separated from her long-time husband and the other was getting married to a guy who got a small case of cold feet that George (of all people) had to intervene and talk to. As he saw these things unfolding and saw the pain and joy of a real connection, he let himself feel and become vulnerable to the woman he brought in ways he never had before. When the weekend ended, he was in love with her and was not only willing to but wanted to change everything about his life to be with her. She returned to Chicago and he ended up following her as a surprise only to find out that she actually was married with children and had a ‘real’ life. He was devastated and like all of those people he had to fire every day he was lost. His old identity of traveling man, which had been complete and full for him before, now didn’t seem to fit. The movie ends with him once again taking to the air, to his itinerant life, without a sense of joy or purpose.
The movie ultimately was depressing to me since I too am at a point of change in life. I am not getting fired nor am I deeply in love with someone who cannot reciprocate and yet, this sense of ambivalence about moving forward in life alone is real. At times I feel strong and confident and content that I don’t want or need anyone else to share in my daily life and even at times feel that having another person will bring baggage and hassles that I don’t have on my own. But there are other times when I feel this independent life will be incomplete. I suppose the truth is somewhere in between. Relationships are messy and complicated and real and as such have hassles and baggage attached but living a life without a deep, close and enduring relationship is limiting too. I guess I just have to wade into the water and see how it feels, let the realities and opportunities in life present themselves and just go forward knowing that I am not ‘Up in the Air’.