I will admit it: I’m addicted to terrible romantic comedies.
I watched Made of Honor voluntarily. All of it. I saw The Proposal, and marveled at how two people who hated each other could break themselves down and rebuild themselves back up in the space of three days (however, Betty White was involved, so it all made sense in context). I even did the inexplicably terrible back-to-back of 27 Dresses and P.S., I Love You, the latter of which was a goddamn comedy no matter how they branded it.
The reason I love them is not because of the movies themselves – the romantic comedy genre is rotting from within, a shambling, misshapen narrative hulk bumbling down a well-worn path, every movie trying to be Sleepless in Seattle…again. Upper middle class white people with love issues meet each other, there are hijinks, one of the principals either turns out to be insanely rich or in competition with someone who is, wacky parents are somehow intertwined, there’s a misunderstanding, everyone wanders off hating each other, someone realizes that they actually love the other person and they run to stop that person from marrying the well-meaning but doomed other love interest who stumbled into this insanely fucked up situation.
Hopefully, Craig T. Nelson is involved somewhere.
There’s also its offshoot, the romantic dramedy. In this case, the protagonists are usually poorer – think middle class or the newly graduated aspiring to be upper middle class. The infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl usually makes an appearance and flounces around while our depressed yet witty hero dicks around in his oh-so-hard life of whiteness until he is inspired by her. She runs away, he chases, she’s got some problem that makes the romance problematic. If the film is uplifting, they overcome it together; if it tries to be realistic, something takes our MPDG off into the sunset and our depressed hero is slightly less depressed for having met her.
What Up in the Air does (and does an excellent job of) is take the ungrounded, magical reality of romantic comedies, where work, bills, other relationships, everything falls understandingly to the wayside in the face of True Love, and grounds it.
(Spoilers ahead.) Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) fires people for a living. He flies around the country, separating people from their jobs, giving them some nice words and a packet. After he’s done one place, he goes to the next one and does the same thing. He also does a bit of motivational speaking on the side, which is largely about others mimicking his one of his two great successes – eschewing any and all meaningful long-term human contact.
His other great success is racking up frequent flyer miles. And it makes sense: his job has absolutely no sense of long-term accomplishment, absolutely nothing to build towards. His miles are the only thing in his life that’s a measurement of where he’s been, and it’s all bloodless and emotionless. He goes through the same routine ad nauseum, the financial burden borne by his employer, his only responsibility telling people they don’t have jobs anymore and then never seeing them again.
He meets Alex, a woman who seems to live the same life as him. Rootless, undefined human beings whose main skills are A.) traveling, B.) being charming and C.) being charming while traveling, they hit it off and begin a months-long flirtation. And once it seems to be serious, once Ryan welcomes Alex into the one area of his life he’s been unable to detach from – his family (namely, his sister’s wedding). When Ryan eventually realizes that Alex could be something more than a travel partner, and even tracks her down in the “real world”, it all comes crashing down. Alex is married, and their relationship, for her, was an escape from her everyday life. Which makes sense, because adults in their late 30s and early 40s generally don’t live in crappy, late 70s-era apartment complexes with plastic furniture, trying to get to ten million frequent flier miles.
Up in the Air is a fantastic little knife in the side of the romantic comedy template. Romance on film is not so much a portrayal as it is a product; a consciously chosen set of signals that show what the filmmaker thinks is or isn’t a workable recipe for love. In most other movies, Alex’s husband and children would be the anchors she would leave behind as she finally met the man of her dreams; Ryan would finally be complete, filling in the hole he’d dug out for himself. Their absolutely abnormal and generally unsustainable lifestyles would miraculously work. They would be delivered to the gods of love, where they would have little babies who loved flying, Ryan’s frequent flier miles taking them around the globe where they could finally be used for some form of personal fulfillment beyond their mere accumulation.
But it doesn’t work. The lives that Ryan and Alex had were not complete except for love, which is the general message of movie romance. Alex wanted an escape, a little something extra to spice up the other life she had as a traveler. Ryan was the embodiment of that other life, with virtually nothing to return to once he set foot on the ground. Up in the Air is brave enough to make the point that love doesn’t conquer all. Friends and family and fulfillment are not simply little moons around the orbit of Mr. or Ms. Right, they’re all valuable components of being a healthy, functioning human being.
Ryan has essentially broken himself, and broken himself terribly. He lives a life of escape, and has done so with such success that he has almost nothing left to escape from. In a traditional movie romance, Ryan would be rewarded for his shell of a life. He’d feel some existential misery at his loneliness, have to chase down the woman of his dreams, but a little bit of sadness and a footrace later, he’d be given everything he was missing because a woman was there waiting to give it to him (and presumably, the same fulfillment would be there for Alex).
But he’s not rewarded. He shouldn’t be. It’s not that one should only be rewarded for taking a desk job and having a nice home and a great relationship with their family – that’s often as unsustainable and unrealistic of a life as Ryan’s 320+ days a year traveling. The ongoing message of movie romance is that you can be as flawed and callous a human being as you want, and eventually you’ll meet someone who will solve everything, set you on the path of the angels and make you happy until you eventually die, 95 years old and waiting to see your love in heaven. Which exists. Because it’s a movie. And God is Morgan Freeman.
In real life, being happy takes work. Good relationships take a lot of work. The offensive thing about movie romance isn’t its triteness; it’s its utter immaturity. We’re all supposed to be waiting for that one person to come along and give us the inspiration to be great and whole, which means that we’re not actually responsible for doing any of the work to become a good person. There’s supposed to be someone out there for each of us, and all it takes is a bare minimum of effort – certainly nothing more than an interrupted wedding and a few pratfalls – and voila! We have love!
Up in the Air is mature and reasoned enough to realize that this is not how things actually work, and doesn’t insult our intelligence trying to peddle something patently silly. If nothing else, I respect it for respecting me.