As men we yearn for meaning. War, art, sex, religion, sport all seem to be born of this elusive desire to impose order, and meaning, on a nonsensical world. It rarely works. But every once in a while we as men glimpse, way off in the distance, a simple truth so deep and moving that we redouble our manic efforts to grab hold of the inexplicable and divine.
In America in 2009 the economy has put gas on this flame of the male needs to chase his tail. Us guys are defined by what we do. It's our armor, our hideout. A guy behind a desk shuffling papers is a sad but stable creature. But if forced to undress all hell breaks loose. He is a turtle without a shell. And it isn't pretty.
Up In The Air, is a movie with the tagline "The story of a man ready to make a connection." It's about that moment of exfoliation and the impact it has on the psyche, particularly of men. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels the country firing people. We see men and women react to the news, and Bingham's attempts to comfort them, as he "sets them adrift." But, of course, the real story isn't so much about the real people who the film gives voice to as they stare into the void but the cumulative impact on Clooney's character.
Bingham prides himself on emptying his backpack, traveling light, never allowing himself to get weighed down by the baggage -- wife, kids, mortgage -- of the rest of us American men. He is a guy's escape fantasy on steroids.
The plot gets rolling when women appear on the scene. Every guy knows that women are our collective conscience. They tell us what we know to be true but just can't stand to hear. The fingernails on chalk board kind of truth that just ruins a beer and a ball game every time because it cannot be ignored. And at some deep-reptile-level we know our escapist fantasy isn't the answer. We just can't admit it until directly confronted by female intuition (and it doesn't hurt if the tough love is being spoken by a woman who is smart and hot).
The crack in Bingham's life plan comes in the form of two women (with a guy of his stature and momentum you need a tag team to slap him around and wise him up), one a precocious young women threatening to steal his livelihood and the other a mirror image of his nomad life style ("think of me as you with a vagina," she cues to him on the phone), threatening to steal his heart.
As an audience we are rooting for the well-oiled clichè of boy meets girl and girl changes boy and boy lives happily ever after, despite the fact that we know damn well that it's bullshit. We just love the comfort of yet another escape fantasy in the form of romantic perfection. What sets Up in the Air apart is its willingness to divert from the superficial and go inside to the uncomfortable truth of life.
The central moment of the film isn't the happy ending. There is no such thing and we all know better. But it comes when Clooney, in all his glamorous beauty, decides to invite his sometimes girlfriend Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) to his sister's modest wedding in Milwaukee. There is nothing glamorous about the sister or her fiancè or Milwaukee. But for once Bingham (Clooney) makes an effort to show up for his family to whom he has thus far been a ghost.
Bingham's soon-to-be brother-in-law Jim Miller (Danny McBride), a bearded real estate developer down on his luck who designed a quarter karat engagement ring himself, gets cold feet at the church. And it's up to Bingham to try to convince Miller to go through with the wedding.
"What does it all mean?" Miller asks Bingham in the church nursery school with The Velveteen Rabbit in his hands. He reports lying in bed the night before and thinking about the rights of passage for guys: marriage, kids, jobs, kids' college, weddings, retirement, and death. And asking himself whether it all made sense, whether he could in fact sign up for everything that getting married implied.
At that moment the movie goes from clichè to universal truth. I have certainly asked that question a million times. My college friends and I have a running joke when things get bad. We tell each other, "I am just going to go in the back yard and dig a big old hole and climb in." The point isn't that we want to kill ourselves. It's just that we have run out of answers and desperately need to laugh with an old friend to soothe the pain.
In the last year, my own manic search for meaning has led me to publish a book on the topic (The Good Men Project), produce a film, create an elaborate social media platform to promote discussion among men, and travel from Sing Sing, where I met with lifetime inmates, to Hollywood, where we had a screening for our film complete with paparazzi. By the end of my airport to airport dash, like Miller's question, I began to ask, "Why?"
Nasty emails from Hollywood lawyers over my supposed misuse of their client's images at our charitable event and letters of criticism from academic experts on the male psyche didn't help my mood as I lay around my bed looking for a barf bag these last few days. I wasn't sure if it was the stomach flu or just over-exposure to life.
But then I went and saw Up In The Air and heard Bingham searching his soul to explain the "why" of manhood, not just to groom-to-be, but to himself. The answer he gives isn't about meaning in any big sense. The rights of passage are what they are. Some are wonderful, many are drudgery. But if there is any meaning it is found in not being alone, in reaching out to another living soul at a time of need, in having a co-pilot in life.
I thought about that when I got home last night after the movie. My wife was rightly furious with me for losing my wallet, and all our credit cards, for the second time in a month. I really wanted to tell her how unfair her anger was. I wanted a break from all the attention I seem to be getting -- I made the mistake of appearing on the Tyra Banks Christmas show to help a widow and her two kids which has brought every such family out of the woodwork.
But then I thought of the wedding scene in the film, after Bingham has convinced Miller that getting married is the best thing he could do with his life. Up In The Air went from highly stylized images of planes and clouds to home movies of highly imperfect people enjoying real life even just for this moment. All of the sudden Clooney's movie star good looks became invisible because in that one scene we see into his heart. The fact that there is no happy ending doesn't matter. It's just that glimpse of meaning -- of truth -- that counts in life. And that is what we as guys so often miss.
I remembered a particular inmate in Sing Sing who had told me how hard it was to go to his mother's death bed in shackles. I remembered how he had cried telling me the story and how I had cried with him for his loss. Then I hugged my wife, spooning in bed. And thought how no matter how much we fight I would trade all the money in the world for just the sensation of lying in bed with her, silently holding her tight in my arms.
And I realized, like George Clooney's character, I too may continue to take flight after flight in search of some bigger truth. But it's that smaller momentary dose of beauty, that real connection, which sustains me and is the point of it all.