Last night, my mother and I rented Up in the Air.
I reviewed the movie for my school’s newspaper back in January, but my mom is constantly a little behind the times, and I had liked it enough to agree to watch it again.
What struck my mom the most about the film, and what I think left such an impression on me the first time, is the unconventional way in which the major romance, between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, unfolds. We are so accustomed to stories about love progressing in certain ways that it can be quite shocking when the plot takes a different turn. [Spoilers ahead!]
For those who haven’t seen the movie and don’t mind having plot details revealed (or for those who ignored my warning), Up in the Air tells the story of a man, Ryan, whose job keeps him flying all over the country the vast majority of every year, a man who resists settling into a home or a deep emotional connection to another human being. He meets a woman, Alex, another career traveler, whose independent spirit and interest in fun and excitement instead of commitment and rules attracts him immediately.
Ryan eventually comes to realize that he is dissatisfied with the detached way he floats through the world and that he wants something more substantial in his life. Unprompted, with no warning, he catches a flight to Alex’s hometown of Chicago and shows up at her front door, sheepish smile on his face belying his expectations of a grand romantic moment. It’s a perfect movie image.
Only Alex doesn’t throw herself into his arms. With the husband and children she never mentioned to Ryan surrounding her, she pretends not to recognize him and calmly shuts the door. She calls him soon after, not to apologize for deceiving him or reveal that he is the one she truly loves, but to ask him why he would think that she wanted a more serious relationship from him when she had never said or done anything to indicate she was looking for more than casual dating.
This moment in the movie is great because we are just as surprised as Ryan. We too expect Alex to be thrilled by his visit, or perhaps so traumatized that she couldn’t bear to see him again. We certainly don’t expect her to chastise him and then propose they continue with their relaxed affair as if nothing had happened. But why not?
Our culture, to a large extent because of movies and TV shows, is used to thinking of men and women in certain predetermined ways. Women are generally depicted as strongly desirous of commitment and men as less willing to settle down, so even though Alex tells Ryan and us that she doesn’t want a serious relationship with him, we assume that once he figures out his own commitment issues, she will be happy to invest more time and energy in him. Our ideas about men and women in relationships are so ingrained that we automatically decide that Alex is lying or just wrong about what she wants. She’s a woman; how could she not want a real relationship?