Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Structure of Up in the Air

(SPOILERS: Up in the Air)

I know I’ve just spent several weeks analyzing a movie, but I want to take a quick look at another one – Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) – because it follows the traditional three act structure pretty closely but uses it in some clever ways. And if you haven’t seen the movie, I’m serious about the spoilers. Stop reading until you’ve watched it – there are some surprising twists that I’m about to ruin for you.

Before breaking down the structure of a movie it’s important to take a moment, step back, and ask “what is this movie about?” Up in the Air is about Ryan, a man constantly on the move who has worked very hard not to be tied down to anyone or anything and the events that cause him to question this lifestyle choice.

This theme is explored in two parallel storylines: First, the company that employs Ryan is contemplating a change that would allow him to do his job over the Internet from one location, threatening his ability to constantly travel (we’ll call this the corporate story). Second, Ryan embarks on a sexual relationship with Alex that starts to become a romantic relationship (we’ll call this the romantic story). Both of these story lines are about a threat to Ryan’s lifestyle.

What’s interesting to me is that both storylines contain all the three-act structure beats, usually occurring in back-to-back scenes. And most interesting, one ends “happily” and one “sadly” from a structural standpoint (the movie is a bit ambiguous about what exactly would make Ryan happy at the end). So the individual story beats function in opposition.

Let me walk through the beats for the two storylines:

There is no prologue or domino (though Ryan’s boss foreshadows the catalyst for the corporate storyline when he tells Ryan he needs to come back to home base.)


ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan meets and seduces Alex. She seems perfect for him – a casual, no-strings-attached fellow traveler.

CORPORATE STORY: Natalie makes a proposal to the company to do their work via teleconference, which will bring Ryan off the road.

COMMENT: Meeting Alex actually doesn’t really function as a catalyst because there’s no problem yet for Ryan. This kind of works since the romantic story will end sadly. However, without the corporate story catalyst, there would be no drama in the movie yet. So the movie at this point is being driven by the corporate storyline.

Act One Break:

CORPORATE STORY: Ryan takes Natalie on the road with him to show her the ropes (and to try to protect his way of life by convincing her that the job cannot be done by teleconference).

ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan calls Alex and arranges another meet-up. It’s now no longer a one-night stand. They have a relationship – as devoid of commitment as it might be.


ROMANTIC STORY: Natalie is dumped by her boyfriend and comforted by Ryan and Alex. Ryan uses this opportunity to defend his lifestyle. Then they all have a good time and Ryan and Alex spend the night together. Ryan is disappointed to see Alex leave.

CORPORATE STORY: Natalie is asked to fire someone by teleconference, though the person is in the next room. At this point Natalie is seriously questioning the wisdom of her idea.

COMMENT: The midpoint should reflect the resolution of the storyline. Since the romantic story will end with Ryan failing to make a connection with Alex, their casual hook up and ultimate failure to commit to anything deeper reflects that. Meanwhile, in the corporate story, the resolution will be happy (in that the teleconference project will be abandoned), so Natalie’s doubts here reflect that.

Act Two Break:

ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan brings Alex to his sister’s wedding. They act like a real couple, not just sexual partners. Ryan saves his sister’s wedding by defending the institution of marriage and the idea of companionship to her groom (the opposite of the speech he made at the midpoint.)

CORPORATE STORY: Ryan returns to corporate home base where he will now work.

COMMENT: The act two break is the moment of biggest failure in a happy story and moment of biggest success in a sad story. In the (ultimately sad) romantic storyline Ryan actually forms a real connection with Alex. It looks like they may become a real couple. While in the (ultimately happy) corporate storyline it seems Ryan’s life on the road is over.


ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan finds out Alex is actually married. He hits his mileage goal but is no longer happy about it.

CORPORATE STORY: Natalie quits after one of the people she fired commits suicide.


ROMANTIC STORY: Ryan is alone again.

CORPORATE STORY: The teleconferencing project is shut down – Ryan returns to the road just like he wanted.

COMMENT: Here we have the opposite endings. Ryan fails in his romantic storyline but succeeds in his corporate storyline. Though, as mentioned, success and failure don’t quite mean the same things at this point in the movie.

What I like is how the movie takes the concepts of three-act structure and uses them to create a story that is ambiguous and bittersweet. This works because both storylines are focused on the same main tension: “Will Ryan protect his lifestyle or will he connect with someone?” This tension is established in the dual catalysts and resolved in the dual resolutions. Thus both storylines are a part of a single story arc. What’s unusual is the way they function in opposition.

It strikes me that an important element of the success of the story is that Ryan’s want and need are clear. He wants freedom (which he defines as not being tied to anyone) and he needs to make a connection with someone. The plot points all serve this character arc. And that is the real story – what the movie is about.

1 comment:

Sanket said...

Excellent.. I could decipher the three act structure quite easily, as a novice.
But, your ability to see through the script is exceptional.

You could just publish a book, with all the blog entries.