Up in the Air: “The Parentheses Speech”

April 16, 2010

Up in the Air was one of the most critically acclaimed movies last year, evidenced by a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes’ tomatometer, and its position as one of the top contenders for last year’s best picture Academy Award. When I went to see it with a couple friends this past winter while traveling in San Francisco, I was surprised to notice a memorable reference to parentheses at a key moment in the film.

*PARENTHESES = SPOILER ALERT*

In the film, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who travels around the country to fire people at companies who have hired his company to lay people off.  He happily spends more days than not “up in the air,” en route from site to site, living his life out of his suitcase, accruing a record number of frequent flyer miles. Bingham meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems to lead a similar life with a similar philosophy, and they begin a casual, playful romance, meeting occasionally when they can arrange to overlap in particular cities where they might be traveling. One day, after deciding he wants to take things to the next level, he shows up unannounced at her home in Chicago . . . to discover that she has a family.

After he’s left, they have  a phone conversation. Clooney tells Farmiga that he thought he was part of her life. She replies, “I thought we signed up for the same thing. I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.” Clooney responds, “I’m a parenthesis?”

In a movie that has often been noted for its dialogue, this exchange has stood out in several commentaries. Some blog posts on the film refer to it in their titles, such as “Up in the Air: A Life Lived Without Parentheses,” or “parentheses,” and many more reviews refer to the line. One blogger writes, “I thought the ‘parentheses’ speech was heartbreaking.” Joseph Natoli’s thoughtful, and more critical, review on Senses of Cinema refers to the dialogue as a way to read the movie’s moral: “One way of looking at the movie–call it the ‘constructive’ way–is to think that Bingham learns in the course of the movie that when you avoid the serious in life no one makes you a serious part of their life. You become, as Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman he assumes is as totally an air borne wanderer as himself, no more than a parenthesis in another’s life.”

Armond White’s New York Press review might be the harshest review of the movie I’ve seen, and White, too, doesn’t ignore the parentheses speech, when he compares the film to Jason Reitman’s previous film: “At least Juno expressed screenwriter Diablo Cody’s overly confident post-feminist resentment, but Farmiga’s derision of Bingham–‘You’re a break from our normal lives, a parenthesis”–is not even Juno-clever. Up in the Air merely flaunts Reitman’s media savvy. It’s as if he studied glibness at Mike Nichols University.”

This “derision,” in the form of the parenthesis, as a textual metaphor, calls attention to the writerly dialogue of the script, and seems to be a figure around which people who both like and dislike the film’s writing can praise or criticize the film more generally. The metaphor itself is interesting too, because I don’t think I’ve heard a person called a parenthesis before–I think this is also part of the reason why this exchange is effective at sticking with many people. It’s an unusual metaphor, but one that plays into a shared cultural perception of the punctuation mark as insignificant.

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