“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.” These words from the movie Up in the Air perfectly embody the philosophy of the speaker, who is the main character. Ryan Bingham is a typical working class middle-aged man, though his profession is far different than that of most people: Ryan is hired to travel across the country to fire people. He is employed by a company called Career Transition Services that is used to manage large-scale layoffs in different cities. Ryan loves his always-on-the-go mode of life. He lives out of a suitcase at almost all times, and spends much of his days in airports or planes. However, when a quick-witted young overachiever named Natalie threatens to take this away from him by converting the layoff process to an online video conference system, Ryan begins to reexamine his transient lifestyle and the choices he has made.
Ryan Bingham is exactly the way you would expect someone who lives three hundred and twenty days out of a year away from home to be: detached. He possesses practically no friends, and the only social interaction he ever participates in is meaningless flings during expense-paid hotel trips. While on the road, he encounters a woman who is equally enamored with frequent flyer miles as he is, named Alex Goran. After a steamy discussion of their mutual fetish for elite travel status, they both retire to the same room. Though they both have to fly to different locations the following day, the two exchange contact information, and plan to meet again soon. Thus begins one of Ryan Bingham’s first continuing relationship. It is obvious that Alex has made an impression on Ryan, however he is not fully aware of the problems in his own life at the inception of the relationship. Throughout the movie, Alex and Ryan meet in various cities across America, enjoying the precious time they have together, though not necessarily weeping for each other when apart. This is an example of how little Ryan is aware of his romantic distance: Ryan and Alex have remained in contact for an extended period of time, though neither have approached the other on furthering their relationship. Ryan sees his romantic participation as mere amusement, and does not feel the internal need to move forward as someone in a budding relationship normally would.
Ryan Bingham’s self-unawareness and lack of actual sincerity does not only cover those he has just met—people he has grown up with are affected as well. At one point in the movie, Ryan and Alex attend a rehearsal dinner for a wedding of Ryan’s sister, with whom he has not been in contact for years, and the man she has been dating. They are charmed by the couple’s affinity for each other and the want to settle down to start a family, though it is apparent that Ryan does not understand the appeal of remaining in one place at all times. It seems that he almost considers his sister and her partner to be weak for starting a life together and becoming anchored to one place and one person. However, Ryan’s ability to appear as if he were compassionate is tested once again, this time outside of work. Minutes before the wedding, his sister’s husband-to-be gets cold feet, and Alex forces Ryan to converse with him and persuade him to go on with the ceremony for the sake of his sister. When talking to the scared man, Ryan does a good job of embodying a person who would earnestly believe his own words of encouragement, though because that is what he does for a living, the audience recognizes that all of this is entirely false. This goes to show just how talented Ryan is at making others believe that he really cares about others’ problems. One positive result to come out of this experience is that Ryan spends more time with Alex, and the viewer sees that they are gradually growing closer, despite their off-putting attitudes. But little does Ryan know that what he expects to grow from Alex and his relationship will soon disappear, faster than he wanted.
Around the final part of the movie, Ryan decides to venture to Alex’s personal abode to surprise her. However, the beholders of surprise reverse when several children open the door. The realization hits Ryan almost immediately: Alex is a married mother. When she sees that he is clearly hurt by this lack of communication, Alex explains “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.” This simple breaking-off of their relationship can be compared to the heartless occupation that Ryan so fervently enjoys. Alex, his only companion, fires him from her life. Shattered and defeated, Ryan returns home to his empty apartment. In the conclusion of the film, though little to nothing has physically changed involving Ryan, all the pain he causes others to feel daily is directed at him. But something differentiates Ryan from those he fires. The loneliness that those Ryan let goes is only felt by them temporarily. Most of them were mothers and fathers who possessed strong familial backing to support them. Ryan on the other hand, had no one to turn to who could comfort him. His entire life was spent miles high up in the air…alone.