I was embarrassed by the cover of a DVD I borrowed recently from my local library. The DVD cover design was totally different from the one I had seen online, giving the friends I was with the impression I had just hired a Rom Com starring George Clooney, when the cover I had seen online had promised alienation, satire and punchy dialogue. See for yourself:
The latter turned out to be the case when I watched the film. So I wondered, was the rental copy given a different design to target a different kind of audience? One more afraid of commitment, perhaps, just like the jet-set central character Ryan Bingham? No, what the Library has unwittingly uncovered is not just an alternate cover; it is the cover of the film playing inside Ryan Bingham’s head while we watch his life unwind.
Bingham feels at home on long-haul travel, preferring its flux, isolation and homogeneity to intimate relationships. He experiments with teasing his polythene wrapped life open a little and falling in love with fellow high-flyer Alex Goran, the woman drinking with him on the rental cover. They assume the roles of screwball comedy lovers, a story Bingham writes, directs and stars in himself. The rental copy is the cover he chooses for his own version of the film, where they meet, sass each other into bed, and reacquaint themselves with the homely lives they have rejected. Bingham expects prodigal childhood nostalgia and the synchronised ticking of their biological clocks to deliver them to the church on time. They will have their wedding cake and eat it. But the director, Jason Reitman, has other ideas.
Reitman exposes the vacuity of Bingham’s life, everyone except Bingham can see it coming, and by the time he meets ‘god’ (airline mascot Maynard Finch) he already knows his life’s work has been a poor investment. A Neitzschean cycle of eternal return thrusts him back above the clouds, yet a long way short of heaven. Assuming the role of a Bodhisattva, if you like, he turns back from Nirvana to help his novice, Natalie Keener, escape the hell of long-haul travel herself. (Dear reader, does any other blog use obscure Buddhist references to avoid film spoilers?) Perhaps Reitman dropped the ball here by not including a scene where Bingham ignores the safety advice found in the leaflet and attaches the oxygen mask to Natalie’s face first? But anyway, you can see why Reitman chose the cover he did for his film, where the bankable Clooney is reduced to an inch-high silhouette facing away from us, a one-man black hole, a shadow to be scraped from the interior of a cut-price reactor. Glass panes reflect his compartmentalised life. A floor, polished, is ready to slip him up.