Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Up in the Air

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Jason Reitman
KEY ACTORS: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 91%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Rewatchable – it’s soft and gentle and sweet and funny and thought provoking and easy watching, and I could watch it every week!
✔️ And yes, I do want to fuck the cast. I’d even argue that this film is George Clooney’s hotness peak!
✔️ Hotel sex with a handsome stranger was certainly a fantasy before this film, but it added the idea of luxury and exclusivity to this fantasy; a frisson of transience and possibility on expensive sheets.
✔️ Although it is another movie that has a possible cheating plot, I do think it’s sex positive as the main focus is on being OK with who you are. Whether you’re frequent flier Ryan or his home girl sister, it’s OK to have the life (and the love and sex) that you want and in the absence of significant sex negative themes, I’m going to give it the mark.
❌ But does it pass the Bechdel test? Can it be only the second 5/5 movie?? In the end, this comes down to accepting nuance in a binary question. There is one conversation between two named female characters that isn’t about men or dating – Natalie fires Karen Barnes, the women who later takes their own life. It’s an important plot point, but it is only one conversation and the women’s name is only revealed later. She is also not listed in the credits. Is that enough to scrape over this lowest of bars? I don’t think it is…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The Up In the Air poster showing silhouettes of Clooney, Kendrick and Farmiga against a big airport window

George Clooney is a good looking man. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion. But when was he hottest? Young and spunky in ER? Slick and tuxedoed in the Oceans movies? Cocky and criminal in Out of Sight, a strong candidate?

I’d argue that George Clooney’s peak hotness is in this week’s film, Up in the Air. Not only does he look incredible in a suit and is at a perfect level of silver foxness, but he’s also playing an unattached business man, moving from hotel to hotel and maxing out on perks and upgrades. He oozes the pleasures of an anonymous nomadic lifestyle and you just know he’d be the perfect hotel stranger to fuck! Yes, this is George Clooney at his absolute best.

Clooney and Farmiga sat in a bar and laughing

But I love this film for many more reasons than just the beautiful men and the hotel sex. It’s a beautiful film and it makes me really happy, even though it objectively doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a real ending with real growth for the characters, and I love it.

The film follows Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a travelling business man who visits companies to fire their employees, a particularly pertinent role in 2009 during the financial crisis. His whole raison d’etre is to be anonymous and impersonal – he’s the bad guy, he’s the face of the faceless corporation that wants to fire these people, allowing their bosses to remain sympathetic and unaffected. And this impersonal existence has bled into his entire life. Ryan is on the road over 300 days a year, living in hotels and flying American Airlines across the country. He has hotel membership, he collects air miles by the million, he lives out of a carry on suitcase to save time at each check in. As the Guardian review noted, Ryan essentially neglects the ‘real loyalties of family and emotional commitment’ in favour of reward schemes and loyalty programmes. He feels light and free and unencumbered by his transient lifestyle – so much so that he gives motivational speeches about discarding the unnecessary weight in our lives.

‘How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life…Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.’

Clooney stood in front of a bed with all his belongings laid out and waiting to be packed

Except, of course, that he can’t stay in his bubble forever. Two women break through – one personal, one business – and change the way he sees his freedom. The first, Natalie Keener (Kendrick), is a young woman who is sent on the road with him to learn about firing people. She’s enthusiastic and ambitious and everything Ryan is not, yearning after a long term commitment. During their work trip, she breaks up with the boyfriend she gave up everything for and has an existential crisis of sorts. She is an interesting character as she is both the stereotypical needy marriage and baby loving woman that the film gently mocks for having such homely goals, and she’s the modern breath of fresh air that starts to make Ryan feel like he is missing out on something in his solitary world.

Clooney and Kendrick sat at a conference table. He is looking confidently forward; she is looking quizzically at him

The other woman, Alex Goran (Farmiga), is yet another example of a woman that I want to be. She’s cool and sophisticated and sexy, and I had to look up Vera Farmiga’s age when it was filmed as the fact that she was 34, as I am now, makes me feel very uncouth. I’m beginning to think I have some sort of suit or office wear kink as all the women I love on screen tend to dress pretty sharply, wearing trouser suits or pencil skirts with blouses. Actually, they tend to have a lot of sex too so maybe the office wear thing is a red herring…! When they meet, Ryan and Alex spar and flirt over the reward schemes and frequent flier perks that they’ve accumulated – as Alex says, they’re both people who ‘get turned on by elite status’ – and they end up having an affair in many hotels in many states, matching their schedules and making additional flights to ensure their paths cross.

Ryan and Alex’s chemistry is just so hot. I absolutely adore each of them talking about their experience of the mile high club – Ryan hasn’t ever managed to have sex on a flight unlike Alex who fucked on a daytime regional flight, a status symbol that is far superior even to Ryan’s concierge card! It did also amuse me that Ryan and Alex are shown to have Good Movie Sex. All the signs were there – ending up on different levels from each other, one on the floor, the other on the bed, with sheets ruffled around them and covered in sweat. That’s how you show Good Movie Sex!

Also, I need to make a quick side point about fucking in hotels. Why is it so hot? Is it the transience or anonymity, as it is for Ryan? Or the fact that someone else cleans up afterwards?? I don’t stay in hotels for business so I know that for me at least, hotel sex is usually so hot more because of the reason I’m in a hotel – a holiday, an erotic writing conference – than because of the literal room but still. Wow!

Anyway, and more importantly, after meeting Alex, Ryan starts to see the benefits of having someone in his life – perhaps someone exactly like her, someone who understands his need to roam – but his attempt at making their relationship more than just hotel sex backfires when he discovers that she has a family at home; a husband and children who she keeps separate from her own travelling existence.

I struggle with this cheating plot line as I really like Alex but I don’t agree with her ‘what happens on the road, stays on the road’ attitude. It’s never explicitly stated that her husband doesn’t know about her other partners but her anger at Ryan turning up on her doorstep suggests otherwise: ‘you could’ve seriously screwed things up for me. That’s my family; that’s my real life.’ Being polyamorous with great relationships with my metamours, I hope that she’s just talking about protecting her children from the reality of her life away from home and her husband consents to her extramarital affairs. It would seem the most sensible way to survive long periods apart. I hope that her husband knows and understands and agrees, even if it’s with a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach, and although she still couldn’t commit to Ryan as he’d hoped, it makes their relationship more real and less…casual.

I find this ambiguity particularly sad as the film makes a point of clarifying that their relationship isn’t casual when that description is used in a derogatory sense, but Alex’s lies undermine the suggestion that there are different ways to have a relationship and that they’re all good. When Natalie questions whether Ryan and Alex have any future, questioning whether the casual relationship that they have could ever be real, Ryan responds by telling her that ‘your definition of “real” is going to evolve as you get older.’ I liked this; I liked the idea that the fairytale relationships that we’re brought up to believe are the only way to find happiness might not actually be the only way, which is why the reality of Alex’s deception upset me almost as much as it upset Ryan:

Ryan Bingham: [over the phone] I thought I was a part of your life.
Alex Goran: I thought we signed up for the same thing… I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.
Ryan Bingham: I’m a parenthesis?

So much in this film is about how life isn’t going to be how you’d planned it. Whether it’s an employee being fired or Ryan discovering Alex’s ‘real’ family, there’s a sense of danger when looking forward – there are too many unexpected outcomes, too much risk. Or perhaps it’s better to say that there’s that sense of danger with too much forward planning, as exemplified by Natalie’s shock at being dumped when she’d planned her whole future around a guy:

This is the scene that stuck with me the longest after I first saw this movie. The contrast between the very specific and frankly superficial needs of younger Natalie and the simpler but perhaps more important desires of older Alex struck a chord with me. I was 24 when this film came out but was horrified by Natalie’s wish to be engaged by 23 with children already, and her plans to have her career sorted and be ‘entertaining by night.’ Do people really want that at 23?

I’ve often wondered if studying medicine, and so being at university for years longer than my contemporaries at school, delayed my need to be ‘grown up.’ At 23 or 24, I was still studying and could think of nothing worse than being settled with a family and hosting dinner parties but I knew many who did want that and many who achieved it. Such is an the grip of the patriarchy that being a successful wife and mother also remains the way that many of us measure our achievements, particularly when measured against our careers. As GOTN wrote a few months ago, women are still judged by how well we take on household admin so, even though Up in the Air does depict Natalie as an extreme example, she’s certainly not unusual in wanting to put a marriage and household above a career.

It is interesting rewatching the film now I’m 34 like Alex. When I was in my early twenties, I may not have wanted the commitment Natalie does but I did have a checklist of superficial qualities that I was looking for in a partner – older than me, taller than me, smarter than me, ginger, blue-eyed, bearded – but I had given up on that sort of list long before I met my future husband (although anyone who knows him will realise that it’s a frighteningly accurate description. It seems I have a type!). Even by my mid-twenties, I knew that finding someone with similar family values or shared views on children etc really is more important than what they look like or how many syllables are in their name.

The scene is played to show Ryan and Alex as the wiser, battle-weary elders who are gently laughing at Natalie’s naivety, but it also shows that the reality of dating in your thirties and beyond does require compromises. Both agree that having a nice smile is important but, other than that, Alex’s wish list seems much more focussed on avoiding conflict than about desirable qualities. Is that what is meant by settling? Is that a bad thing? Again, I now agree with Alex that what feels like settling changes as you get older – it’s more about realising what is important and widening your options.

Clooney and Farmiga; she has her hand on his shoulder as both look towards the left

Even though Ryan is apparently on the wiser side of that discussion, he is the one whose character arc involves the most growth and change when it comes to relationships. Early on, he is dismissive of marriage, asking Natalie to ‘sell it to [him]’ and effectively countering each of her arguments. It sounds like a practiced speech, a well-worn discussion. Slick and certain. In contrast to this, when talking to his future brother-in-law, Jim, and trying to warm his cold feet before his wedding, he is less sure of himself, less certain but wholly more believable: ‘If you think about it, your favourite memories, the most important moments in your life… were you alone?’ It’s almost as if he’s coming to the realisation himself, persuading and comforting Jim and reaching the conclusion that ‘life’s better with company’ at the same time.

It is only after this realisation and after he discovers Alex’s family that Ryan achieves his lifelong ambition of earning 10 million air mile goal, but his success becomes so much more poignant with his new attitude towards having more people in his life. It’s everything that he’s worked for and is the ultimate symbol of his isolation and transience, but it seems to feel so hollow once he has it. The film’s tagline is that it’s a ‘story of a man ready to make a connection,’ and by the end, I certainly believe that he is.

After all, everyone needs a co-pilot.

Next week: Dirty Dancing

Sorry for the delay posting this week – holidaying with a baby has even less writing time than I expected!!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. One of my favourite films too, which you’ve described excellently and made me think deeper about its sub-plots and characters’ feelings. The post-sex scene really does ooze unbridled passion, helped by the nonchalant nudity. When I used to travel a lot for business I got a very small glimpse into what this life can be like – it really is lonely and so I can absolutely understand the need for intimacy with strangers. As for hotel room sex…yeah, I agree completely, it’s as though being somewhere different allows us to be someone different, or at least the different someone our regular selves fantasise about!

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