Bingham vs. Cancer?

As a reader of Walter Kirn‘s “Up In The Air“, Matthew Morettini suspects that Jason Reitman shot Up In the Air with an undercurrent of fatality in mind — i.e., George Clooney‘s Ryan Bingham suspecting his days may be numbered.

Those who haven’t seen the film should know that spoilers follow.

“Kirn’s 2001 novel is told in the first-person from Bingham’s point-of-view,” Morettini begins. “By the time we reach the third act, after a series of strange and confusing episodes, it becomes clear that Bingham is an unreliable narrator. It is only in the last few pages that we learn he has been suffering from seizures, black-outs for hours on end, and has an upcoming appointment at the Mayo clinic for treatment of this unnamed affliction.

“In short the book has a twist ending that makes you go back and rethink everything you read. I think director-cowriter Reitman had the same ending in mind when he made the movie only to pull his punches in post.

“The first clue to Reitman’s intention is the ‘Would you like the cancer?/Would you like the can, sir?’ joke during Bingham’s maiden flight. When I saw this scene, I immediately knew the meaning of the signal since I’d read the book. My presumption was that unlike Kirn in the novel, Reitman was going to be a bit more clever about planting clues about Bingham’s health throughout the story.

“As it stands in the film now, without the twist, the ‘cancer/can, sir’ joke is an odd bit that doesn’t really make sense. It’s merely a joke that seems to have been written to demonstrate Bingham is preoccupied with thoughts of cancer and death.

“There are other hints of mortality. If you go back and watch the movie again in your mind, almost everything else Bingham does makes more sense if we suspects he may be dying.

“As in the novel, Bingham is obsessed with frequent flier miles. (One million in the book, ten million in the film) “I would be number seven,” he explains. “More people have gone to the moon.” If we look at his quest through a mortal lens, we see that instead of just being a guy trying to score points, Bingham is someone racing the clock, trying to achieve something that would give his life a kind of meaning before he meets his early end.


George Clooney, Jason Reitman

“Bingham’s rash decision to throw away his whole life/relationship philosophy as he tries to connect with Alex in Chicago is something a sick guy with emotional avoidance issues might just do.

“Ditto his reaching out to reconnect with his family in northern Wisconsin, however awkwardly, and his trip down memory lane when he and Alex break into his old high school. Not to mention his ‘we all die alone’ declaration whenever he discusses relationships with Natalie.

“My gut tells me that Reitman watched his movie from start to finish and decided the ending was dark enough without piling a cancer diagnosis upon his main character.

“I’m not arguing that movie needed the twist; it works brilliantly without it. But the threads of this lost ending are woven through the film, and I do think it was there at the start. I think the whole story was started down that path and I think Clooney played the character as a goner, and that Reitman had second thoughts in post.

Sidenote: Morettini says that when Bingham tells his boss (Jason Bateman) that he doesn’t remember a bridge-jump suicide threat of one of the women Natalie laid off, “it didn’t read to me that he was protecting Natalie…it seemed to me he that he just forgot about the incident altogether.” That’s obviously not true. Bingham had forgotten nothing. He was protecting Natalie. And himself, of course.

  • Nick Nightingale

    I agree that the “cancer / can, sir” bit felt out of place, however in the 8.19.08 draft of the script, there’s no additional explicit references to the character’s illness.

    The only major thing that didn’t make it to the screen from that draft was a fantastic dream sequence in the 3rd act, which I’d love to know if Reitman shot.

  • http://www.sammyray,com Ray

    Yeah, that can-sir joke seemed strange when I saw the film, too. Notice Clooney’s reaction once he realized his mistake with the joke – he just smiles slightly, as if he knows something is wrong with him, rather than break out in a laugh like a healthy person might. Very interesting!!

    I kinda wonder how that cancer subplot might have played, though. Everyone’s talking about how Up In The Air is unworthy of Best Picture because it is not that deep … would this subplot have strengthened that depth??

  • Alex Stroup

    I’ll have to watch it again, but I remember also thinking that Clooney honestly didn’t remember the suicide threat, that he’d done so many times, heard everything so many times that they were no longer individual events to him.

    To me that is more interesting than self-protection. That his life is such that a suicide threat is something quickly forgotten.

  • Lehigh

    I assumed Clooney was protecting Natalie. Though there’s no beat/pause before Clooney says he doesn’t remember, which is the typical movie trick of “hey, we know you know he’s not telling the truth.”

    I think the movie’s better without the cancer diagnosis angle. It actually makes Bingham more compelling — he’s not reaching out because he knows it’s his last chance; he’s reaching out because he can’t quite figure out what to do to make himself right.

    Still interested if Reitman wrote the movie with all of Bingham’s brand affiliations (American, Hilton, Hertz, TravelPro), or if they sold out the product placement route. American, Hilton, and Hertz are all three iconic, huge, some might say stale, brands. Bingham’s not attracted to cutting edge. His car would be a Cadillac. His watch a Rolex. HIs suits from Brooks Brothers.

  • K. Bowen

    [Possible spoilers]

    As someone who didn’t care much for the film, let me say that if Reitman pulled a cancer angle, then he probably made the right decision.

    To answer your question, Ray, I think a cancer subplot would have made the film seem more manipulative, and a touch desperate. It would indicate doubt and insecurity about whether the downsizing premise alone would be enough to touch people without hammering them with a big, giant, manipulative disease-and-fatality subplot.

    Frankly, the whole thing sounds like a really bad creative writing workshop idea. The film, for me, already suffers from an overabundance of smug literary cleverness. And it already has a twist that at least some people find obvious and unsatisfying.

    As I said, I would consier any such omisssion as a smart move on Reitman’s part.(And for the record, I’m still positive on both Juno and Thank You for Smoking.)

    P.S.

    Hadn’t thought about the “protecting Natalie” angle. I think it’s possible to see it either way.I thought the point was that he had fired so many people that even a person honestly threatening suicide didn’t register. Part of Bingham’s self-delusion is that he fires people with a personal touch, and that his method is more caring and humane than Natalie’s impersonal video method. The fact he couldn’t remember even the most blatant (and as it turns out, genuine) suicide threat indicated how deeply he was swimming in his own bullshit and the degree to which he was shutting things out.

    But I think the other explanation could satisfy, as well. An interesting discussion.

  • K. Bowen

    “I think the movie’s better without the cancer diagnosis angle. It actually makes Bingham more compelling — he’s not reaching out because he knows it’s his last chance; he’s reaching out because he can’t quite figure out what to do to make himself right.”

    I like this observation, Lehigh.

  • http://www.sammyray.com Ray

    @ K. Bowen – I agree that it would have made the film feel more manipulative … but we’re talking about the Academy here.

  • Phreaker

    Yeah. Would have been interesting. I disagree with the above. It would have given the film much-needed complexity.

  • BurmaShave

    Kind of unacceptably cowardly.

  • Deathtongue_Groupie

    First off, I think everyone is missing something very important, a breakthrough even, about this post: Jeff finally put in a spoiler warning without his usual need to be churlish about it. So even though I have seen the film, it is appreciated.

    I never thought anything else but that Bingham was protecting Natalie about the bridge jumper. She is leaving this job for another and he surely recognizes that she doesn’t need this following her around the rest of her life. Natalie didn’t make the bad business decisions that led to the bridge jumper’s firing.

    He realizes that Natalie was unsuited for the job and knowing the woman carried out her threat would crush her. Bingham is not obvious to the fired worker’s pain (there’s his line about it being the worst day of their lives), he just has his rationalizations/lifestyle to insulate him from the fallout.

    I disagree that the cancer angle would have been a bad thing, but only if the ending hadn’t changed. The entire reason I like the film, which is pretty thin I admit, is because it had the balls to dangle the feel-good, you-can-change-at-any-time ending 99% of other movies would have had and then threw cold water on the audience wake them up to reality: Bingham blew it.

    His life, that is. Perhaps if he was still 30 something, it could be one of those stories where he has an epiphany about “what’s important in life.” No, the black joke at the heart of UP/AIR is that Bingham only realizes this when it’s too late. His only choice is remain up in the air, a cautionary tale to remind the rest of us that it’s those human connections Bingham deliberately divorced himself from which deepen our lives.

    That and you can’t make such changes overnight. He might have finally figured it out, but saving his sister’s wedding and helping Natalie avoid becoming like himself and Alex doesn’t instantly turn his life around. Emotionally, his lack of experience dealing with the daily onslaughts of life complicated by other human beings mean that Ray Bingham is a 25 year old kid wearing a 40 something costume.

    As such, it’s probably the most naked part Clooney has played.

  • Phreaker

    “That and you can’t make such changes overnight. He might have finally figured it out, but saving his sister’s wedding and helping Natalie avoid becoming like himself and Alex doesn’t instantly turn his life around. Emotionally, his lack of experience dealing with the daily onslaughts of life complicated by other human beings mean that Ray Bingham is a 25 year old kid wearing a 40 something costume.

    As such, it’s probably the most naked part Clooney has played. ”

    Well not really. One of my gripes with it, and this is a common thread in Reitman’s work and in his Twitter feed. He wants to be the best guy. Clooney had to be the best guy. Juno (was that her name – I can’t even remember) had to be the best character. The failure to find any real flaws in Clooney’s character is probably what doomed Up in the Air. The audience is on Clooney’s side and wants him to be happy. So the regular rom/com ending of guy running to get girl is turned on its head. But at the expense of the Vera Farmiga character making any sense.

    Imagine instead him running to make one last stab at a real life before he died – but he came up short. Sort of like jumping off an airplane that is about to crash and having the parachute defective. Grabbing hold of someone or something in the end is like finding religion — self-serving, inauthentic and kind of missing the point. But that would have been more poignant than anything I saw in that film.

    In other words, taking a snarky sentimental story and removing the sentiment leaves only the snark. Sure there was plenty of sentiment left — but Ryan Bingham’s character feels like a cheat. To me anyway.

  • Mark

    Here’s the problem with removing his pending mortality from the third act: there was no dire rush for him to reach his 10m life goal. Once he reached it in the movie, I thought, he was that close and still sweating being grounded? Seems silly and forced without the cancer angle.

  • Colin

    Lehigh,

    Reitman said n Charlie Rose that the script was written with those companies in mind.

  • Gordon27

    “”it didn’t read to me that he was protecting Natalie…it seemed to me he that he just forgot about the incident altogether.””

    The thing is, Natalie wasn’t responsible, he was. If he was protecting anybody, he was protecting himself. [Not going to human resources and reporting that statement = automatically fired when she kills herself.]

    So if he was protecting anybody, it was himself. But I thought the truth was that he was still a shallow self-obsessed asshole and genuinely didn’t remember her. That’s certainly how Clooney played it.

  • Gordon27

    DTG – the weird thing about the ending, to me, is that I understand that it’s trying to tell the audience what you’re saying, but I felt like what it actually shows the audience is “Bingham was right, his lifestyle did make him happier.” The way the movie is now, Kendrick’s arguments (even though he outfoxes them) sink in and convince him that he isn’t happy, so he pursues a relationship that he probably wouldn’t have considered [though I will say, the fact that she agrees to go to the wedding with him makes her a really, really bad person who completely led him along no matter what was said between them previously] and, whoops! That isn’t going to make you happier. And now you achieved your life goal, paltry was it is, but since you just lost something else, that’s not satisfying for you either. And it all starts with his epiphany that he shouldn’t give the speech. So, basically, if he had stuck with his philosophy instead of abandoning it, he would’ve continued to be happy for an unknown amount of time.

    I totally understand why people react against the last 10 minutes of the movie, and it isn’t because it’s randomly depressing after a 90 minute comedy, as Jeff reductively puts it (but, then, he’s always too reductive when summarizing positions he disagrees with).

  • NOTACLUE

    Hi there from Down Under…

    what about the ending ? we were really left up in the air …

    We are left with the image of Bingham letting go off his carry on bag…something that he hadn’t done in a 20 year career to me a VERY powerful image of letting go and a precursor for a final act ? suicide ?

    hence his distracted response to his boss “no ever sees the warning signs” …and his final parting words over the final scene ” you will see my wingtip light in the sky ….

    Is this one interpretation of the ending of the film ?

    as intended, we are left up in the air…..

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    He realizes that Natalie was unsuited for the job and knowing the woman carried out her threat would crush her. Bingham is not obvious to the fired worker’s pain (there’s his line about it being the worst day of their lives), he just has his rationalizations/lifestyle to insulate him from the fallout.

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    I think the movie’s better without the cancer diagnosis angle. It actually makes Bingham more compelling — he’s not reaching out because he knows it’s his last chance; he’s reaching out because he can’t quite figure out what to do to make himself right.

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