Ryan Bingham is the perfect symbol of the corporate world—a detached, almost faceless man whose two purposes in life are to fire people and get air miles. He cares little for relationships, considering them an encumbrance that one should work to dispense with. He believes it so much he gives a seminar where he tells the attendees this with a perfectly straight face. Perhaps, in his line of work it makes the most sense to be detached, unafraid of becoming emotionally evolved in each layoff victim’s problems. Whatever his reasoning, he is so detached as to be almost soulless and incapable of intimacies.
At the beginning of the movie his one great love is getting to 10 million air miles. It is the replacement for human relationships with a corporate relationship. It is also one that while not particularly fulfilling, gives Ryan a sense of his importance in the world he inhabits. Like human relationships, he also knows that the corporate relationships he has are artificial, but he accepts that as just the way things are. He posits a way of life that is solitary, but connected through commercial bonds. In an age of constant marketing it makes perfect sense.
The isolation changes when he meets two women: Alix, a frequent traveler like him, and Natalie, a young up and comer at the company he works with. They represent two sides of the relationship question. Alix believes in casual acquaintances; Natalie the longterm. For Ryan, Alix’s detachment is the perfect accompaniment to his. Natalie, on the other hand, is an anathema and is everything that is wrong in a world that believes in love, marriage, and family. Except that Ryan doesn’t exactly believe it. While the corporate relationships he has sustain him, he finds that they are not enough. There is something to human relationships, something that a membership card can never give. The problem, though, is corporate cards, as long as you meet your obligations, rarely lie or cheat. Ryan can choose between the smooth and impersonal corporate relationships he has, or he can risk the something else.
In the end Ryan finds he wants the other, but that it is seldom as one would like, but messy and given to failing apart. One could say the film suggest that the only human relationships that succeed are those where they are suffused with the same detachment Ryan first espouses. A better read might be that the more detached the more lonely, the more attached the more the risk, something Ryan has studiously tried to avoid. However, a little skepticism when approaching Natalie’s idea that marriage always equals eternal happiness, is perhaps not a bad thing. One just needs to come to some compromise between the two. Up in the Air doesn’t answer the questions, as it shouldn’t, but leaves Ryan up in the air, knowing that there can be, at times, more, but it doesn’t always work. Perhaps, he will go back to the old life, perhaps change. The cynic and the optimist each have their choice, the film is open to either.