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Actor George Clooney’s “Up in the Air” has already won 12 film awards and been nominated for 28 others, and that’s even before the Oscar buzz heats up – and with a timely plot, excellent acting and (usually) intelligent scriptwriting, it’s easy to see why the film has garnered so much attention.

But don’t hold Hollywood’s fawning over the movie against it. “Up in the Air” is not just another droll, oversexed, artsy-fartsy film with a face that only professional critics could love.

In fact, the film isn’t some attempt at modern art through a movie lens, but comes across more as a “throwback” to the classic tragedies, a story of a noble protagonist whose one key mistake in life comes back in the end to haunt him. And in that mistake is a moral lesson – though dark, as tragedies can be – that actually affirms the irreplaceable value of marriage and family.

Make no mistake, “Up in the Air” does not wrap up with a neat, romantic-comedy, happy ending. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a woefully depressing tale or – as I will cast it for the remainder of this review – a creative stroke, painting an old lesson for the current time in an even older style that somehow comes across as fresh and new.

The plot of “Up in the Air” follows Clooney in the character of Ryan Bingham, an intentionally single, committedly and completely unattached professional whose job is to fly about the country, racking up millions of frequent flyer miles, as a hired terminator – no, not a red-eyed robot, but a specialist who handles with class and legal decorum the duty of firing people from their jobs.

When he’s not “up in the air” somewhere, Bingham is developing a motivational speech and future book explaining the benefits of living the solitary, unattached life.

He invites his audiences to picture all their belongings and attachments packed up in a backpack. Then, he says, try to walk with all that weight.

“We weigh ourselves down until we can’t move. And make no mistake, moving is living,” he professes. “Now imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing in your backpack. Kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?”

But the seeds of his downfall are planted when he applies the same logic to relationships:

“Your relationships are the heaviest components in your life – all those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die,” he says. “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.”

Bingham is then confronted by three women who rattle the foundation of his perfectly isolated and “free” worldview. The first is his lover, who – he believes – shares his “mature” outlook on life. The second is an idealistic young protégé, who wants both career and family and is flabbergasted by his willingness to forgo marriage and children. The third is his long-abandoned sister, who is about to be married and whose fiancée is about to call off the wedding.

The inevitable clashes are both furious and funny, well-written and witty.

The film then progresses through a series of cliché scenes – a return home, a crisis of conscience, a desperate race after love before it’s too late – before pulling a stunning plot twist that transforms “Up in the Air” from typical comedy to classic tragedy.

I’m afraid I can say little more on the plot without giving up too much for those that choose to see this film.

But Bingham learns in the end that no amount of “freedom” from the “negotiations, arguments, secrets and compromises” of relationships can be ultimately fulfilling. Business trips, success, prestige, accomplishment and even his coveted frequent flyer miles may be fun, but they’re a poor substitute for love. With the emptiness of his philosophy exposed, Bingham yearns for the love he spurns, is swayed by the enduring power of marriage, and is left with … nothing.

It is, after all, a tragedy.

The film ends, however, with a measure of hope in the form of testimonies from people deprived of everything Bingham valued, the very people he fired:

“Money can keep you warm,” declares one jobless woman, “but not as warm as when my husband holds me in his arms.”

“My wife gives me purpose,” testifies another unemployed man.

When all is said and done, “Up in the Air” finishes with the hopeless holding on to hope, the lost having direction and the one with it all together watching it all fall apart.

Content advisory:

  • “Up in the Air” is laced with excessive profanity that, while not on the pace of a war flick, occasionally gets in the way of the otherwise intelligent dialogue. In a few cases, the cussing is reasonably placed for effect, but in others it breaks with character in a cheap attempt to manufacture emotion where better acting or writing would have been better.
  • The film contains a sudden and startlingly revealing scene of a woman fully nude from the back and side. It contains kissing and flirting but no graphic sex scenes. It does, however, contain a few scenes of heavy innuendo, including an exchange of “sexting” about masturbation.
  • The movie contains no violence outside of upset employees trashing their offices after being fired.
  • “Up in the Air” has no overt occult content, and it’s religious themes are limited to a wedding scene that takes place in a traditional, Midwestern church and the lyrics of the film’s closing song, which sings about needing a savior and about a prodigal, but the meaning of such references are unclear. The characters do on occasion use the names of God and Christ as expletives.

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