In "Up in the Air," George Clooney's Ryan Bingham is a "career transition consultant" i.e., a guy who travels around the country doing the dirty work of corporate bosses too cowardly to fire their own employees. The movie's title is an apt description of Ryan's existential condition, and his literal one, too, since he spends on average 322 days a year on the job, often on planes. His proudest achievement in life is that he is nearing 10-million-mile frequent-flyer status.
Ryan is an antihero for these parlous times and, of course, since he's played by Clooney, we wait for him to redeem himself and become a full-fledged hero. But it's to the credit of director Jason Reitman – who co-wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Turner based on the 2001 Walter Kirn novel – that the movie for the most part scrupulously avoids sentimentality.
Reportedly Reitman began working on this material four years ago, when the economy was good and Ryan's situation could be played for laughs. Not any longer. There are numerous sequences in "Up in the Air" where Ryan meets face to face with total strangers and, in his purring, "concerned" corporatespeak, drops the bomb. And then we see the instantaneous reactions he elicits, the horror and panic and misery and rage. Many of these workers were culled by Reitman from the ranks of actual laid-off workers, and their testimony intermittently brings the film a lot closer to, say, a Fred Wiseman documentary like "Welfare" than to a comedy from the guy who gave us "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking."
I have some ethical qualms about using the real-life upsets of real-life people to give what is essentially a classy entertainment its dollop of gravitas. But I think to do anything less would have been far more objectionable. Reitman doesn't linger over the miseries; there's nothing leery or masochistic about the way he handles them. This is a movie about, among other things, pain, and it's made by someone who understands its expression.
Ryan finds his sky-high counterpart in Vera Farmiga's Alex, a corporate traveler he meets on the hustings who matches him gold card for gold card. They seduce each other by running down their members-only status. It's a great joke – bonus miles as the ultimate erotic enticement. Plus it helps that they both look spectacular even after spending many rumply hours in transit. I haven't seen chemistry this good between two movie actors in ages. Clooney in his movies is so charismatic that he can often score even when his female costar isn't up to his game, but when he's paired with someone who can match him (as was also the case with, surprisingly, Jennifer Lopez in "Out of Sight"), he's doubly glamorous. Farmiga has a been-around quality here that so sensual it's almost comic. At times she's reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, who also knew how to slink with the best of them and still stay smart. And of course, Clooney, the most Golden Age of Hollywood-looking of all contemporary actors, has sometimes been compared to Bogart, who specialized in hard-boiled romantics.
Ryan occasionally gives motivational speeches to executives in which he talks about fitting all that's important in one's life into a single backpack. This is not difficult for him: He flies with a single carry-on bag, and on those rare occasions when he's not traveling, he holes up in his furniture-challenged Omaha apartment. (It's a crash pad, really.) Ryan doesn't go in for much emotional baggage, either, which is why, when he warms to Alex and their serial dalliances, he seems more befuddled than blissful.
He's jolted to earth by the introduction of a new whiz-kid employee, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who has been hired by Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) to cut costs by firing people via videoconferencing. Ryan rails at the inhumanity of this tactic, but uppermost in his mind is the potential loss of all those future frequent-flyer miles. He is ordered to take Natalie on the road in order to give her firsthand experience, but what he really wants to do is scare her.
Natalie is such an abrasive drip that we wait for the moment when she gets what's coming to her. Compared to Ryan and Alex, Natalie is a bit too caricatured, too much the embodiment of comic relief, for this bittersweet film. And yet it needs her. Without her, we might not see the shadings in Ryan's emotional makeup. In his own deadpan way he cares about her, especially when she reveals chinks in her robot armor. In his eyes, she's salvageable.
Reitman, like Ryan, holds back a bit. He's made a movie about a guy on his flight to self-discovery, but the self to be discovered, perhaps by necessity, never quite coalesces. Clooney is so adept at portraying a man who avoids human connection that, when the togetherness kicks in – especially near the end, when Ryan is recruited to straighten out his estranged sister's wedding – it feels not false exactly, but a little flip. Ryan is a more resonant, a more mysterious character than this movie, for all its charms and intelligence, can safely handle. But his evasions and yearnings, set against the backdrop of recessionary rage, is nevertheless stronger stuff than just about anything else on the screens right now. Grade: A- (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)