Opening credits start with a jazzy rendition of “This Land is Your Land” and a series of aerial photos that are framed like moving postcards.
Following the credits, the movie opens with a series of reactions from employees as they are fired. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for “Career Transition Corporation” (“CTC”), and travels from company to company firing people. Responses to the firings include: “It feels like a death in the family. Only I’m the one that died.” “I can’t afford to be unemployed.” “How can you live with yourself?” One employee, Steve (Zach Galifianakis), is particularly volatile. He’s worked at his company for 7 years, and his boss is “too much of a p***y” to fire Steve himself, Ryan tells us. [NOTE: Ryan narrates voice-overs through much of the movie.] Steve (comically) retaliates by pouring bleach into the office coffee pot. To calm him down, Ryan says, “Anyone who’s built an empire sat where you are right now.” He hands him a packet, inside which are tips on how to transition and take the “next steps” to “the rest of your life.” This seems to console Steve. Ryan then asks for his key card. “Tomorrow morning, go get yourself some exercise,” Ryan tells him. “How do I get in touch with you?” asks Steve. Ryan points him to the packet, but knows he will never see Steve again.
Back in his hotel, Ryan meticulously packs clothes into his carry-on suitcase and heads to the airport. “To know me is to fly with me,” he narrates. “This is where I live.” Ryan goes through the TSA security line like a seasoned pro. “All the things you probably hate about traveling . . . are warm reminders that I am home.”
Sitting in business class, a flight attendant (Meagan Flynn) asks Ryan, “Do you want the cancer?” Startled, he says, “What?” She points to a soda can and it’s clear Ryan misheard. “Can, sir?” she repeats. “Oh, no thank you.”
Ryan is next in the lobby of a Hampton Inn in Columbus, Ohio giving a speech to a crowd. In addition to his day job, Ryan is also a motivational speaker. His speech is called, “What’s in your backpack?” “Think about putting all of your stuff into a backpack,” he says. First the small stuff, then larger items like your furniture, your car, your house a stuffed into your backpack. “Now try to walk.” Laughter from the crowd. We weigh ourselves down to the point where we can’t move, he says. “Make no mistake. Moving is living.” He encourages the crowd to burn their backpack completely.
Back in the airport, Ryan is lounging in the American Airlines “Admiral’s Club.” He calls his assistant Kevin (Chris Lowell) who tells him that Ryan’s sister Kara called about his other sister Julie’s upcoming wedding. Ryan blows it off and asks about “Goldquest,” an uber-prestigious motivational speaking venue. It turns out Ryan got invited to speak at Goldquest and he’s extremely excited. Ryan then gets a call from his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman). Craig orders Ryan back to Omaha immediately to discuss something that will be a “real game changer” at work.
Still in the club, Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flyer. They start engaging in very nerdy, inside banter about car rental companies and hotels. They then show off their various travel related credit cards. Alex is especially impressed by Ryan’s American Airlines “ConciergeKey.” The card itself is heavier than typical credit cards as it’s made of graphite. Alex tells him that she travels about 60,000 miles per year, and asks what Ryan’s number is. He’d rather not say. “I’ll be it’s huge,” she says. “You have no idea,” he replies. “How big is it? Is it this big?” she asks, putting her hands several inches apart. She moves her hands farther apart. “This big?” After a few more drinks they swap stories of mile high club experiences, then go back to his hotel room. The next scene is Alex walking naked toward the hotel bed, while Ryan is lying on a pillow on the floor next to the bed. It’s clear they just had sex. They get dressed and we next see them sitting across from each other. They both simultaneously pull up their laptops and furiously study their calendars. They schedule their next rendezvous for Florida in a few weeks. Ryan walks Alex back to her hotel room, and they kiss. As a courtesy, Ryan hangs the “Do not disturb” sign outside her door and walks away.
The next morning, we see in quick succession Ryan swimming in the hotel pool, packing, checking out, and back in the airport. He is shopping for neckties when his sister Kara (Amy Morton) calls. They need help with Julie’s wedding. Specifically, they have a cardboard photograph of Julie and her fiancé Jim, and they want him to take a picture of the cardboard couple in front of the Luxor Hotel while he’s in Vegas. He’s annoyed but he says he’ll “try his best.” “You’re awfully isolated, the way you live,” says Kara. “Isolated, I’m surrounded,” says Ryan.
Ryan then heads back to Omaha. We see aerial pictures of crop circles while he’s flying. “Last year, I spent 322 days on the road,” Ryan narrates in voice-over, “and 43 miserable days at home.” His home is a stark, sterile studio apartment, and it’s clear he’s hardly ever there. As he’s walking in, his next door neighbor hands him a white package. He opens it it’s the cardboard photo of his sister Julie and her fiancé Jim (the one he’s supposed to shoot in Vegas). He thanks his neighbor and asks her to “come over later.” She declines, saying she’s started seeing someone. He gives her a lukewarm congrats.
Next, Ryan’s back in the home office for the all important staff meeting CTC. Craig says that in the past year, retail is down 20%. Auto, housing, etc. are all down. The American economy is in the toilet. “This,” he says, “is our moment.” He introduces Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), CTC’s newest protégé. Natalie gives a power point presentation she entitles “GLOCAL” “Global must be local.” CTC currently keeps 23 people on the road at least 250 days a year, she says. This is inefficient. Her solution virtual firing. There’s a monitor on the conference table and CTC receptionist Ned (Dustin Miles) is on screen. Natalie “fires” him online, as a demonstration to the team. In the process, she uses Ryan’s “anyone who’s built an empire” line. “That’s my f’ing line,” says Ryan. Ned is completely passive and non-hostile in response to being fired. CTC can reduce its travel budget 85% if they use this system, according to Natalie, and people won’t need to travel for the holidays anymore. Nevertheless, Ryan is upset.
After the meeting, Ryan is protests in Craig’s office. Craig tells him that Coke and IBM have already been doing this for years. Natalie walks in, and Ryan tells her that she knows nothing about the realities of how people think. “That’s not true, I was a psychology major,” she retorts. Annoyed, Ryan challenges Natalie to “fire him.” Craig tries to intervene, but Natalie plays along. She goes through the process. Ryan reacts by being extremely hostile and tempermental. He starts to storm out of the room and Natalie follows him. “You can’t follow me, you’re staring at a computer screen, remember?” he says. They start again. This time, as he’s being fired, he threatens to sue. Natalie fumbles her response, and it’s clear she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
Jason admits that this technology will make Ryan “irrelevant.” Nevertheless, he wants Ryan to show Natalie “the ropes.” He rolls a piece of paper into a “boat” and says, “Here’s the boat.” He raises his index finger. “And here’s you. Do you want to be on the boat?” “Yeah, alone,” says Ryan. Jason gives him an ultimatum. If he wants to travel, he has to take Natalie with him. Otherwise, he’s staying in Omaha.
Ryan’s back in his apartment, packing again. He’s having trouble packing the Julie/Jim cardboard cutout into his suitcase. It’s too tall to fit. Eventually, at the airport, we see that he’s packed it in such a manner that Jim/Julie’s heads are peeking out of the top of his suitcase. Natalie’s boyfriend Brian drops her off at the airport. She walks over to Ryan while slowly dragging a heavy, very old suitcase using a single strap. Ryan is horrified. You have to wait on average 35 minutes a flight for check-in luggage, he explains. Given how often they fly, that comes out to one week a year. They go to a suitcase store in the airport and he buys her a new one. Then we see Natalie kneeling in her skirt suit on the floor of the airport lobby, as Ryan makes her repack everything from her old suitcase to the new one. In the process, he throws away a neck pillow and a bed pillow that she’s brought with her. “They have nicer ones where we’re going,” he says. She doesn’t complain.
As they go through the security lines, he warns her to stay away from lines with infants and old people. “Asians,” he says, are perfect. They pack light, travel efficiently and “got a thing for slip on shoes, God love ‘em.” “That’s racist,” says Natalie. “I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster,” he responds. On the flight, she’s typing loudly on her laptop, while he’s drawing a cover illustration for his “What’s in your backpack” presentation. He asks what she’s working on. It’s a “workflow of firing techniques”scripts that anyone can use when firing people. “All you have to do is follow the steps,” she says. Ryan sees that she still clearly doesn’t get it.
Ryan and Natalie go through a series of cities on their road trip, starting with St. Louis. Alex calls Ryan, asking why he never called her back. He says he felt bad, and didn’t want to send her the wrong signal. “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about,” she responds. “Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” They start comparing schedules, but only using the three-letter airport codes, and make tentative plans to meet up in “SDF” (Louisville).
Ryan and Natalie walk into an office in St. Louis, prepared to fire a number of employees. Natalie is carrying a large stack of the “packets” that they give to each terminated person. Ryan instructs Natalie to say nothing. Her only job is to hand over the packet. There are another series of reactions of people getting fired, like in the beginning of the movie: “How do you sleep at night?” “What are you doing this weekend? Are you going to Chucky Cheese with your kids? Because I can’t afford to.” An employee named Bob (J.K. Simmons) reacts by showing Ryan and Natalie a wallet photo of his two young kids, about 8-10 yrs old. “What do you suggest I tell them?” he asks. For the first time, Natalie jumps in. She asys this may actually have a “positive effect” on his kids. Ryan stares at her in disbelief as Bob does not react well. “Go f’ yourself,” he says. Ryan quickly tries to recover. “Look, I’m a wakeup call.” He explains to Bob that the reason kids love athletes is that, unlike Bob, they followed their dreams. Bob doesn’t understand. Ryan looks through Bob’s resume. He minored in culinary arts in college and worked busing tables at an Italian restaurant before working here. “When were you going to do what makes you happy?” Ryan asks. “This is a rebirth,” he says, “If not for you, do it for your children.” Bob takes the packet from Natalie, feeling consoled.
After the firings, Ryan and Natalie check into their rooms at the Hilton. Because they’re “Hilton Honors” members they get to use an express line at check-in, while other guests have to wait in longer lines. “Why does he get to cut in line?” asks one very irate customer (Meghan Maguire). The Hilton employee (Laura Ackerman) tries to explain that Ryan is a “Hilton Honors” member. Ryan tells the irate woman that it’s a great program. “Here, read their pamphlet,” he says offering her an HH pamphlet. She just throws it on the ground, still annoyed.
At dinner, Ryan orders more food than he can eat. He explains to Natalie that the company comps him up to $40, and he always orders the maximum amount for the sake of getting the miles on his card. She asks him how he plans to spend his miles. He has no intention of actually using them. “The miles are the goal.” He reveals that his lifetime goal is to reach 10 million miles. He’d be the 7th American Airlines passenger to do so. If he does, he’d have lifetime “executive” status, his name on the side of the plane, and he’d get to meet AA’s chief pilot, Maynard Finch. Natalie thinks the whole thing is absurd. If she had those kind of miles, she wouldn’t wait to pick a destination to visit.
Back in his hotel room, Ryan looks at the invitation for his sister’s wedding. Meanwhile, Alex texts him. Alex and Ryan are at separate Hilton hotels, both lying on their respective beds, wearing Hilton bathrobes. They start sexting innuendos over their blackberries.
The next morning Natalie helps Ryan take a photo of the Jim/Julie cutout in front of the rather pedestrian St. Louis airport. She doesn’t understand why he wants to take a photo there of all places, and he tries to explain the spirit of flying.
They fly next to Witchita for more firings. One guy starts shouting and storms out of the room. “Sometimes they just have to vent,” Ryan tells Natalie. Natalie insists on handling the next one. Karen Barnes, the female employee, is extremely calm when hearing the news. But then she calmly says she’s going to jump off a bridge and kill herself. Afterwards, Natalie escapes the building to get some air. Ryan follows and tries to reassure her that people say those kinds of things all the time. An inherent part of their job is seeing people at their most fragile and “setting them adrift.” They go back inside to complete the job.
Kansas City The firings are getting more depressing. Here the office space is nearly vacant. A receptionist is on the phone crying.
Tulsa Another Hilton, Ryan swimming in the pool. Then cut to the airport where Ryan overhears Natalie talking to her boyfriend on the phone. “I’m not really sure how long this whole exercise is supposed to last,” she tells him. “No I don’t even think of him that way. He’s old,” she adds. More firings ensue, and Ryan has another quick fling with Alex.
Des Moines The mood’s getting worse and worse. It’s winter and the sky is gray. Natalie looks downcast and depressed.
Miami Ryan is giving another “backpack” motivational speech. We hear him speak from where he last left off. He says, now, rather than filling your backpack with stuff, imagine filing it with peopleworkers, friends, family, spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend. He jokingly promises the audience he won’t tell them to burn the backpack this time. But feel how heavy the bag is. “Your relationships are the heaviest components of your life.” The secrets, arguments, and compromises. You don’t need all that weight, he says. Set the bag down. “We are not swans,” who mate for life, he says, “We’re sharks. The slower you move, the faster you die.”
Afterwards, Ryan and Natalie are riding the Hilton shuttle to their hotel. Natalie can’t believe Ryan never wants to marry or have kids. “Why should I?” he asks. He challenges Natalie to “sell him on marriage.” “Love,” she offers. He scoffs. Half of all marriages end in divorce. “Someone to talk to?” He talks to people all the time. “How about not dying alone?” Ryan says that since he was 12 he’s watched first his grandparents then his parents being shipped off to nursing homes. “We all die alone.”
As they walk into the hotel lobby, Natalie starts to cry. She reveals that Brian, her boyfriend, dumped her. Ryan is caught off guard by the sight of Natalie crying, but eventually gives her a hug. Meanwhile, Alex walks into the lobby as Ryan and Natalie are hugging. Natalie tries to get it together and awkwardly introduces herself.
They go to the hotel bar/lounge and Natalie shows Ryan and Alex the text from Brian: “I think we should C other people.” Alex can’t believe Brian dumped her via text. “I know, that’s like firing people over the internet or something,” says Ryan. Natalie reveals that she gave up a good job working for ConAgra in San Francisco and moved to Omaha to be with Brian. She thought that at age 23, she’d be engaged by now. “I thought I’d be driving a Grand Cherokee,” she says. She asks Alex, “When did you think you’d be married?” “At a certain point, you stop counting,” Alex says.
Alex asks if Natalie thought Brian was “the one.” “He fits the bill,” says Natalie. White collar, college grad, tall, athletic, in finance. Alex says that by her age, 34, physical requirements are out the window. “You want him to not be an a-hole, be good company, come from good family, wants and likes kids,have some hair on his head (not a dealbreaker), and have a nice smile. Maybe just a nice smile will just do it.” Why don’t you just date women? Natalie asks. “Tried it,” says Alex. “Turns out they’re just as difficult as we are.” Natalie says she just “doesn’t want to settle.” Alex: “By the time someone is right for you, it won’t feel like settling.”
Natalie wants to know what the plan is for the evening. Alex and Ryan had been planning to crash a tech conference happening at the hotel called “Alpha Tech.” Natalie joins them. At the registration booth, they discreetly steal name tags for other registrants who haven’t arrived. yet Somehow Natalie ends up with “Jennifer Chu.” Inside, it’s like a nightclub, with strobe lights, loud music, a dance floor, and a large center stage. Natalie tells Alex, “You’re exactly what I want to look like in 15 years.” They all start dancing. A geeky software dude (Dave Engfer) starts dancing close to Natalie. “I’m Dave” he shouts. “I’m Natalie!” she responds. He looks at her name tag and asks, “Who’s Jennifer Chu?” She laughs and says, “I don’t know!”
The Alpha Tech conference begins, and the host introduces Young MC (Marvin Young, in a cameo appearance) to the stage. Young MC, who must have gained at least 50 pounds, starts singing “Bust a Move.” Alex and Ryan are on the dance floor. Ryan tells Alex, “I want you to have a key to my place,” and hands him his hotel key card. Alex makes a retort about are you sure you want to make this kind of commitment? Suddenly, Ryan looks around and says, “Wait a minute, where’s Natalie?”
We see Natalie is singing “Time after Time” on karaoke while Dave watches on. Both are drunk. The camera slowly pans back and reveals they’re on a boat off the shores of South Beach. The camera pans back farther and we see Alex and Ryan are sitting on the back of the boat with their legs dangling over the side, chatting. Alex googled Ryan and found out about his backpack speech. Where did the backpack come from? she asks. He said he needed to be alone. He adds that he had needed to empty his own backpack, but now he thinks he wants to put things back in it. They kiss. Suddenly the boat runs out of gas and comes to an abrupt stop in the middle of the water. Somehow, they makes their way back to the shore, and everyone runs back inside to the hotel.
It’s the next morning and Ryan is just waking up. Alex is already dressed and has to catch an early flight. “I really like you,” Ryan tells Alex. “I like you too,” she responds. They stare for a moment before he says, “God, go catch your plane.”
Later that morning, Ryan and Natalie are having breakfast at the hotel’s outdoor café. Natalie is hungover. She apologizes for last night’s behavior. “Just relax,” says Ryan, “It was nice seeing you cut loose.” He then asks her, “Did you wake him up or slip out?” She pretends to be incredulous at first then answers, “I just left.”
They take another photo of the Julie/Jim cutout, this time in a dock in Miami. Natalie presses Ryan about his intentions with Alex. Ryan asks, “Do you know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet” “Yes,” says Natalie. “Right, well I don't.” “You’re an a**hole,” says Natalie. She can’t believe he won’t take a chance at something real with Alex. She says he lives in a “cocoon of self-banishment” with “no human connection,” and that he’s a 12 year old inside. After ripping him, Natalie walks away. Meanwhile the Julie/Jim cutout falls into the water, and Ryan accidentally falls in also trying to retrieve it. He’s next back in the hotel trying to dry the photo with a hairdryer. Eventually the photo makes it back to his suitcase, though it’s clearly seen better days.
From Miami they go to Detroit. It’s the dead of winter. Ryan warns Natalie that the economy has been brutal here. They just want to go in, do their job, and get out. Outside the office building is a large “Foreclosure” sign.
Security guards escort them in. In the conference room they see a computer monitor with Natalie “virtual firing” program set up and ready to go. They call their boss Craig to find out what’s going on. He says they’ve waited long enough, and it’s time to try the program live. Craig specifically wants Natalie to take this one. Her first employee, Mr. Samuels (Steve Eastin), appears on the monitor. He’s an older white man. She tells him he’s been let go. He gets upset, and starts shouting. “I’m 57 years old. What am I supposed to do now?” Meanwhile the camera pans away from Natalie and Ryan, and reveals that Mr. Samuels is just next door in another room. They can see the back of his head through an opaque glass window. Natalie tries to use the “empire” line again and instructs him to take the packet. He does, slowly, but then starts to cry. He cries harder and harder, and soon he’s sobbing. Natalie just sits there for a while, and eventually tells him to go back to his office and pack his things. Instead, he continues to sit and cry. “Mr. Samuels, it’s time to leave,” she says. More crying. She screams at him, “Mr. Samuels!” Finally, he walks away. They see him through the glass window, walking down the hall.
Ryan tells Natalie that she “did good.” She picks up a pencil and crosses Mr. Samuels’s name off a list. There are 59 more names to go.
In the next scene, Ryan and Natalie are back outside the building, and Ryan’s on the phone with Craig. He tells Craig that Natalie did a great job. We can’t hear what Craig’s saying but it’s clear Ryan is fighting for a few more road trips. But he hangs up the phone and tells Natalie that it’s over. They’re going back to Omaha for good. He adds again that she did a great job.
They are back in the airport, standing in front of a gigantic window. We see the silhouette of Ryan staring at a massive plane just outside. Natalie is sitting on her suitcase, checking her blackberry. [You may have seen this shot as the poster ad for this movie.]
As they walk toward their gate, Natalie asks Ryan, “Are you going to be okay in Omaha?” “I don’t know,” he answers. Suddenly, he turns around and walks in the other direction. He tells Natalie there’s something he has to do. He’s grabbing another flight, but will see her back at home.
Ryan flies to Vegas to take the promised photo of the Julie/Jim cutout in front of the Luxor. Helping him take the photo is Alex, who met him there. He asks her, “How do you like Wisconsin in February?” That’s northern Wisconsin, he clarifies. He wants her to be his date to Julie’s wedding. Initially she resists, but he says he doesn’t want to be alone. He wants her to be with him.
They fly to Milwaukee and drive up to the wedding locale, a campy “Swiss Chalet” style hotel called the “Matterhorn,” near Ryan’s hometown. Ironically, when they’re checking in, there’s an open line at reception, but it’s reserved for “Matterhorn VIP customers only.” Ryan meets Kara, who’s staying in one of the rooms. He introduces Alex. “Ryan’s told me nothing about you,” Kara says. It turns out that Kara and her husband are going through a trial separation. At the rehearsal dinner, Ryan introduces Alex to Julie (Melanie Lynskey) and also meets Jim Miller (Danny McBride) for the first time. Julie shows off her engagement ring a yellow gold band with a microscopic diamond. Ryan says he took the photos that Julie and Jim wanted. Julie says he can “put them on the wall of photos.” Ryan looks over and sees a massive collage of photos of the Julie/Jim cutout taken at locations all over the country. There’s barely enough room to post his photos up.
Later, Jim explains that most of their nest egg has been invested in real estate. But in the meantime, their finances are tight, so they don’t have the budget for a honeymoon. But Jim and Julie’s many friends have been nice enough to take those photos for them as “a replacement.”
After the rehearsal dinner, the three Binghams siblings are walking to their cars along with with Alex and Jim. Jim runs ahead to put stuff in the car, while Alex goes back to pick up one last flower bouquet for them, leaving Ryan and his two sisters to stand awkwardly by themselves. Ryan asks Julie, since dad won’t be at the wedding, who will be walking her down the aisle? Julie says that actually Jim’s uncle will do it. He’s been amazingly supportive over the years. But guests can arrive at the church between 5 and 5:30. Ryan is hurt by her response, but pretends to brush it off.
The next morning before the wedding, Ryan takes Alex to visit his old high school. The doors are locked but Alex jimmies open a window and they sneak into a classroom. He shows her photos of him playing basketball for the high school team, which are still displayed in a trophy case in the hallway. He takes her to a stairwell which was known as the “makeout” stairs, and they kiss. They walk into the school gym and watch the current high school team practice. Alex says she’s glad she came. Suddenly, Kara calls and tells Ryan to come to the church immediately. There’s a crisis.
Ryan and Alex rush back and Kara tells them that Jim has “cold feet.” Julie is in her white wedding dress being comforted by her bridesmaids. Kara wants Ryan to talk to Jim. He says he’s not the right guy. Kara insistsafter all, he’s a motivational speaker. But my speeches are about avoiding commitment, Ryan responds. “What kind of f’ed up message is that?” says Kara. Finally, Kara tells Ryan that he hasn’t been around for a while, and basically in her mind “doesn’t exist,” but if he wants to reintegrate in the family, this would be the way to do it.
Jim is sitting by himself in a church elementary Sunday school classroom, reading The Velveteen Rabbit. Ryan walks in and asks what’s going on. Jim says that the night before, he was in bed and couldn’t sleep. He started to think about his future house, mortgage, kids, tuition, grandkids, and eventually death. “What’s the point?” he asks. Jim sees his single friends and they seem happier than his married ones. Ryan admits that what Jim said was all true. “There is no point.” But if you think about your favorite moments, your most important moments in life, you were never alone. “Life’s better with company,” says Ryan. “Everybody needs a co-pilot.” Ryan’s consoled Jim and changed his mind. “Go get her,” he says.
Jim leaves the classroom and walks towards Julie. He apologizes profusely, and bending on one knee he asks, “Will you be my co-pilot?” Julie looks confused for a moment, but says “yes.” They hug and make up. Meanwhile, Ryan and Kara are watching from a distance. “Welcome home,” Kara whispers.
They go through the wedding ceremony. Ryan and Alex hold hands. At the reception, Ryan dances with Alex and with Julie. It’s clear that everyone’s having a good time.
The next day, Alex and Ryan are back at the Milwaukee airport. Ryan’s going to Omaha, while Alex flies back to Chicago. “Call me when you get lonely,” Alex says as she leaves. “I’m lonely,” Ryan responds, only half-kidding.
Omaha. Ryan’s back in his empty apartment, trying to figure out how to get settled, since he’s now grounded. He opens his fridge and there’s almost no food, only tiny hotel mini-fridge sized liquor bottles. He pours a drink.
He goes to work and the office now looks like a call center. Natalie’s virtual system is being implemented company wide. They’re “beta testing” the system, and “go live” at the end of the month. Natalie’s in charge of making sure that all of CTC’s employees are up to speed on the termination scripts. Meanwhile, Ryan prepares for the “Goldquest” motivational speaking engagement that he had booked earlier.
The next scene is Ryan at the Goldquest event, which is being held in an airport conference hall. He’s introduced to the electrified audience as the “Challenge speaker.” He walks onstage and starts his backpack speech. “Last year, I flew over 350,000 miles. The moon is 250.” He goes through the speech, but his heart’s not in it. He stops talking and looks around. The crowd is murmuring. Abruptly, he walks off the stage. “What’s he doing?” someone yells out. He runs through the airport and gets on the next flight to Chicago.
In Chicago, he rushes through the Hertz car rental. As he’s drives away, the Hertz employee (Paul Goetz) yells, “Wait, you forgot to give me your Hertz Gold Club membership ID!” He drives to Alex’s home, holding a scrap of paper that has her address on it. He parks the car and walks down the street. Alex lives in a brownstone townhouse. There’s snow on the ground. He walks up the steps to her homes and rings the bell. Alex opens the door and stares at him, saying nothing. Ryan starts to speak when suddenly, we see two kids behind Alex, running through their home and up the stairs. Alex and Ryan just stare at each other. In the background, Alex’s husband (Matt O’Toole) says, “Hey honey, who’s at the door?” Alex shuts the door abruptly and says, “Nobody, just someone who is lost.” Ryan slowly walks away.
Ryan goes back to the hotel and has a drink in his hotel room. He spends the night alone.
The next morning, Alex calls Ryan while sitting alone in her car, in a large parking garage. She’s angry and says that Ryan put her “real life” in serious jeopardy. She thought they had an understanding. “You are an escape,” she says. “A break from our normal lives. A parenthesis.” Ryan is offended that Alex would call him a “parenthesis.” “What do you want?” Alex asks Ryan. Ryan says nothing. “You don’t know what you want,” Alex continues. She says she’s willing to see him again, but he must call first, and he has to understand that it’s only “an escape,” nothing else. She hangs up.
Ryan takes a flight back to Omaha. In the plane, while passing over Dubuque, the stewardess makes an announcementRyan has just reached 10 million miles. American Air chief co-pilot Maynard Finch (Sam Elliott) happens to be on this flight and he and two flight attendants walk over to congratulate Ryan. Finch is an older man with gray hair and a gray mustache and bears a striking resemblance to Sully Sullenberger. He says Ryan’s the youngest person he’s met to reach the milestone. He hands him a silver club card with Ryan’s name etched on it and says, “We appreciate your loyalty.”
Ryan tells Finch that he’s been dreaming about this moment for a long time. He imagined this very conversation in his head. “What did you want to say?” asks Finch. Ryan stares at him and says, “You know, I don’t remember.” Finch responds, “That’s all right. It happens to all of us.” Finch then asks, “Where are you from?” Ryan answers, “I’m from here.”
Back in the office, Ryan makes a call to American Airlines customer service. A human agent immediately answers and addresses Ryan by name. He asks how she knew who he was, and she says that AA keeps track of all their VIP executives, so they can provide them the best service. Ryan says he’d like to transfer some of his miles to Jim and Julieenough to allow them to travel around the world. (About 500,000 miles each.)
Craig walks into his office and asks Ryan if he remembers Karen Barnes, from a 30 person reduction in Witchita. “What about her?” he asks. It turns out that shortly after the firing, Karen killed herself by jumping off a bridge. For legal reasons, Craig has to ask Ryan if there was anything he remembersany signals indicating that Ryan knew she would kill herself. Ryan gets defensive, but ultimately says no. He asks Craig how Natalie is handling the news. Craig tells him that when Natalie found out, she quit, via text message. She didn’t say where she was going.
Craig also tells Ryan that CTC has decided to pull the plug on virtual firings. He says, “I need you back in the air.” Craig is taken aback by Ryan’s lukewarm response. He thought he’d be thrilled. In any event, Craig tells Ryan that he can now “go out as long as he wants.”
We next see Natalie in San Francisco, at a job interview. It’s unclear what company or job she’s applying for, but the office décor is very elegant. “Why Omaha?” the interviewer asks her. He says Natalie was at the top of her class, could have gone anywhere she wanted. Instead she goes to Omaha and takes a horrible job firing people. Why? She admits she followed a boy. He looks at her and says, we’ve all been there. Lucky for her, though, Ryan wrote her an excellent letter of recommendation, based on which the interviewer gives her the job.
There are a final series of employee firings. “I think the anger comes from the fact that I’m just not needed anymore,” says one person.
Ryan is back in the airport, staring at a very large arrival/departure board. He narrates: “Tonight, most people will be home with their families. I’ll be on a plane. And if you look up at the sky, one of the stars shining more brightly than the rest will be my wingtip, passing over.” The movie ends with shots of clouds in the air.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travel from city to city firing employees of various companies. He meets and falls in love with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and eventually decides to give up his peripatetic ways to settle down with her. But when he surprises at her home, it turns out she’s married with kids. Heartbroken, the movie ends with him returning to his job, and traveling alone.
A side story involves Ryan’s co-worker, Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick), who invents a method of firing people virtually through the internet, meaning folks like Ryan would no longer need to travel. Ryan is forced to take one last trip with Natalie as his apprentice before their company implements the virtual system completely, grounding Ryan for good. However, when one former employee who Natalie had fired commits suicide, Natalie quits abruptly. The company pulls the plug on the virtual system, and Ryan goes back to traveling.