But even though Up in the Air turns out to be more about Ryan than Natalie, it doesn’t take away from the importance of the character, both in her design and function in the film. It may not be her story, but she is incredibly vital to it. So while the movie is about Ryan… this character study is about Natalie.
So let's start with Ryan. Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. He comes into people's lives when they are at their most fragile, and he helps them on their way. But while these people's lives are 'up in the air' in a metaphorical sense, Ryan's is literal: he spends 322 days of his year traveling across the US, his life compacted into a single suitcase. His home is in airports and on planes; his sense of belonging in rewards cards and membership perks. He preaches the gospel of a life unfettered with personal relationships and the weight of material possessions.
Natalie Keener, 23 and impossibly smart, threatens to take that away from him -- unwittingly, of course. Natalie has worked out a way to revolutionize the business of firing people. With the cost of travel rising and technology marching forward, Natalie Keener's proposes to fire workers via the internet, using a Skype-like program and a conversation workflow that makes it easy for anyone to perform the task, from any place. This plan not only eliminates the need for people like Ryan to travel around the country, but also dismisses the idea that Ryan Bingham is intuitively better at this delicate task than others. It is, simply, an affront to his entire existence.
But rather than require these two to carry out their roles in plot-propelled opposition, Up in the Air instead directs Natalie and Ryan to friendly professional interaction. Their boss requires Natalie to accompany Ryan on the road, so that she can learn the art of firing from someone who’s been in the “biz” a little longer. And to Ryan Bingham, this IS an art. This is a way of life, a philosophy of being. But to Natalie, this is a simply a business. She creates an instruction manual for letting employees go, and touts practicalities over than the intricacies of human emotion. Everything is by-the-book, and bottom lines. Ryan, however, understands the power of empathy in such an intimate social interaction. His pitches are not rote, nor are they impersonal. Where Natalie is buttoned-up and formal, Ryan is profound and engaging.
This is perfectly seen in their exchange with J.K. Simmons' character Bob, who belligerently asks what he should tell his kids about losing his job. Smartly, Ryan lets the gravity of the question sink in, allowing for a moment of silence that validates Bob's point of view. Natalie, however, misses the social cue, and jumps immediately into the conversation. She reassures Bob, telling him that his kids' test scores will likely go up because of his career trauma. Naturally, this lack of sensitivity pisses Bob off. He tells Natalie to go fuck herself. But Ryan has Bob's number: he's taken the time to study the man's resume, and tells him that his kids will admire him if he doesn't give up on his culinary dreams that he abandoned so long ago. Ryan is able to successfully navigate the interaction, where Natalie falls short.
Thus, in their professional lives, Ryan Bingham is the heart, where Natalie Keener is the head. He intuits; she makes judgments. Where he allows for poetry and complexity, she essentializes human interactions into a series of memorized lines and projected responses, and seems unable to perceive nuanced emotional cues. As is, this is enough to construct Natalie as the perfect foil to put opposite the main character. However, Up in the Air takes the notion and extends it further - into their personal lives… where they are exactly reversed. "The head" and "the heart" are switched when it comes to personal relationships: Natalie speaks often of falling in love and having a family, whereas Ryan has no desire to "settle down" and commit to a long-term relationship. While it can perhaps be attributed to the age difference between them, it remains that Natalie doesn’t subscribe to the idea of “casual (personal) relationships” in place of those that can be mature and meaningful.
Through her position as Ryan's foil, it's fairly straightforward to understand the basic construction behind Natalie Keener’s conceptual traits. But there's more to examine with the character, in particular with how she is wielded by the narrative. Natalie arrives as a catalyst to the film; without her, we have no story. She is the "inciting incident," the wrench in Ryan Bingham's life that upends his way of living and puts him on a path to change. But here's the funny thing: Ryan doesn't change. Not really. He's still "in the air" at the end of the film, even after having boldly tried to pursue a romantic relationship with Alex. While the film's experiences certainly affect Ryan and leave us with a sense that he’s different now, fundamentally, he does not change. In fact, the only one in the film to change is Natalie. It’s ironic; the character introduced as the film's catalyst turns out to be the one changed most by the film's events.
By the end of the second act, we begin to see cracks in Natalie's conviction. After seeing offices disassembled and rooms full of empty chairs, after hearing employees calmly threaten to commit suicide and tearfully plead for their livelihoods… Natalie Keener can't handle this world any longer. During the first implementation of Natalie’s virtual-interaction program and after weeks on the road, you begin to see, through little flickers in her face, that she’s starting to not believe in her idea anymore. And it’s a fascinating subversion of what we’d expect. This is where the head and the heart converge in each character, and flesh each of them into three dimensions. The man who understands the specificities of human emotion, Ryan, is desensitized to them; whereas the woman seemingly incapable of grasping their subtleties is wholeheartedly affected by them. Ultimately, the final straw for Natalie is learning that Karen Barnes, in Wichita, actually did kill herself after Natalie fired her.
In a way, Natalie's character journey in the film adopts a kind of quixotic element. While her role is more that of Sancho Panza than Quixote himself, she bears many similar identifiers to the tragic fantasist, and an awfully parallel arc. At film's beginning, Natalie is armed with an impossible ideal and an uncompromising self-confidence… but by film's end, the events of the narrative - of life - have broken her belief system and stripped away her self-assurance. She even occasionally demonstrates a similar kind of absurd ridiculousness: her introduction shows her coining the inane compound word "glocal," and a serious crying jag in the hotel lobby is comedically exaggerated. And ultimately, like Don Quixote, the narrative communicates that she's not meant for this world. For the Man of La Mancha, the world is too harsh and cruel for someone so idealistic and deluded. For Natalie, the business of firing people became too harsh and unpredictable for someone so incapable of dealing with the imperfection - and reality - of human emotion.
But there's something else lurking behind the notion that Natalie Keener didn't ever belong in the business of firing people: she wasn't even supposed to be there in the first place. After her boyfriend Brian dumps her, Natalie reveals that she had turned down a job in San Francisco to follow Brian to Omaha, on the promise that they'd have a life together. From this light, Natalie's arc turns intriguing under the lens of feminism, and there's much to discuss - particularly as it plays out in conversation with Alex, a woman eleven years her senior.
The film very explicitly puts forth the idea that Natalie has been given unrealistic expectations about the kind of life she'll lead. She directly states that by 23, she expected to be married, with a kid, and a corner office. She was supposed to have a Grand Cherokee by now. This idea is the Post-Feminist Dream - or is it the Post-Feminist Curse? "I can have it all.” With women's march into the office environment, it was first an expectation of them, by society, to maintain their place in the domestic sphere in addition to their newfound professionalism. But as time wore on and the concept internalized, it frequently became women's expectations of them themselves. Why choose? Why not do both? Fulfillment at home and at work is not too much to ask for, right? We can have it all! We have to have it all! Natalie makes it very clear that she somehow still felt like career accomplishments weren’t enough to constitute life success until she'd found the Right Guy. In other words, Natalie Keener was probably raised by a working mother and a slew of flat romantic comedies in which uptight working women feel unfulfilled without their dream guy. It’s not hard to see how Natalie was sold a broken promise and clings stubbornly to the pieces of hope.
Of course, the society- and self-imposed stress of "having it all" can do wonders to create 20-something lady taskmonsters like Natalie. After all, her life design is not unlike the flowchart she makes for business interactions. There is a path to take, and protocol to follow, and an end target in mind. She is goal-oriented to the point of having a laundry list of laughably specific characteristics identifying the Perfect Guy, with an accompanying relationship timeline. Not only is a she a Quixote at work, but she's a Quixote in her personal life. How can that rigid ideal possibly live up to the dregs of reality? It can’t. Ryan and Alex gently advise her that life’s not really about deadlines and unrealistic expectations for yourself. But Natalie refuses to settle. Settling, by definition, is failure.
In a perfect world, Natalie Keener would have the corner office, because she perfectly implemented the perfect way to fire employees while saving costs. She would have a perfect husband with a perfectly one-syllable name, and the perfect kids, and the perfect life. She's come to expect no less - even if Brian weren’t the right guy, she could make it work, because this is a reflection on her life accomplishments more than anything else.
But nearing the end of Up in the Air, Natalie Keener's perfect plans have failed: the professional plan, the personal plan, the life plan. And the film chooses only to show us this deconstruction in one single shot, of Natalie retreating from the camera on an airport conveyer, face hidden and body rigid. These four seconds, this one singular shot, is almost enough to assuage Natalie's third act absence. A jarring cutaway, it does more to communicate the tragedy of a quixotic downfall than any prolonged conversation or emotional acting moment. For the purposes of her own character, independent of Ryan, it is her farewell shot... and for a fleeting moment, this is her story.
Most parting shots feature the camera pulling away, to suggest finality, and in doing so, the characters onscreen get smaller. Natalie's parting shot achieves the same effect, but does so by leaving the camera static. Taking advantage of the film's natural airport setting and the inferred poetry of travel, Jason Reitman puts Natalie on a conveyor, and lets her get smaller in frame without moving the camera at all. As a result, there's no real sense of peace or happiness in the finality - the camera is static, the character is static, and she's simply being carried off. The idea behind her leaving is beautifully muddled, because the fact of the matter is that she failed. Her departure is actually a retreat.
Beyond that, she's moving towards a vanishing point: the parallel fluorescent lighting and the handrails of the conveyor all create a large "X" that the eye subconsciously processes - and that Natalie Keener is disappearing towards. She moves towards a horizon, much like a cowboy into the sunset, and at this point in the film we don't know what's waiting for her. She's not following a boy. She's not making a plan, that we know of. She's being set adrift, leaving a world that was never meant for her, and heading into the unknown. And from what we know of the character, that's about the most terrifying thing she could possibly chance.
For one brief moment, Up in the Air lets us entertain the idea that Natalie Keener is the hero of her own story. She may not be the hero of this story, which rests squarely on Ryan Bingham's shoulders… but she gets her own hero shot, and we get to see her soul in a moment of limbo. It is, after all, a core theme of the film, and the concept Natalie herself never quite grasped. Ryan Bingham lives in limbo, and ushers others into the condition with the attempt to make it more tolerable for them. Limbo is inevitable, limbo can be beautiful, and without limbo we cannot grow. Natalie may not ever come to terms with that spirituality; she may not spearhead the idea like Ryan… but she's still a part of it. She didn't change this story; she was changed by it.
In the end, Natalie Keener ultimately moves forward, changed, and while Ryan doesn't quite evolve as much as the audience probably expected, she's also part of the small footnote Ryan makes in his life mantra, as his character’s development. While the answer to life's problems may not be in a marriage or a romance, like Natalie thought, it's clear that life - like limbo - is more tolerable with others beside you. They may not be dance partners, or life partners - but they're important. So while Ryan doesn’t "end up” with Alex in a Hollywood fulfillment of life's meaningful relationships, he does give his miles to his sister and brother-in-law so they can travel, and he does write a recommendation for Natalie, to usher her out of limbo and into the life she was supposed to be living.
Perhaps there, she is the hero of her own story, and finding a way to negotiate the life she leads with her list of expectations. Perhaps there, it’s not a perfect world… but one in which she belongs.