As serious as it is funny, as substantial as it is breezy, “Up in the Air” is an astonishing balancing act from writer/director Jason Reitman.
It also illustrates why George Clooney is worth every penny.
Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a smug loner and hatchet man who flies around the country firing employees whose own bosses are too cowardly to do the dirty work themselves. Faced with weepy, angry, incredulous workers who have just had the carpet pulled out from under them (they’re played mostly by non-actors who really have lost their jobs in the economic tailspin), Ryan unloads a stream of bromides.
“Regard this as an opportunity, a new beginning, blah blah . . .”
His bland demeanor suggests sympathy, but in fact he feels nothing — or at least he tries not to. He’s usually out of the office and on a flight to another city before his victims can clean out their desks.
In any other film, Ryan would be the heavy (especially in this era of the mass layoff). Here he’s our protagonist, and because he’s played by the astonishingly charismatic Clooney, we end up rooting for him.
Loosely based on Walter Kirn’s novel, “Up in the Air” is a character study that in the hands of Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”) becomes a commentary on our troubled times. It evokes big laughs but is never superficial; as with the best popular art, it makes no distinction between entertaining and enlightening.
Ryan travels light. He finds comfort in not having any attachments. He adores the clean emptiness of airports and hotels; we get a glimpse of his apartment in Omaha, and it appears never to have been occupied.
Ryan is like that with his relationships, too. He rarely speaks to his family, and his love life is one of friendly, pleasurable encounters devoid of strings or follow-through.
His willful shallowness is offset by his wit and charm. Ryan’s one passion is air travel — he’s determined to rack up 10 million miles on American Airlines, a goal achieved by only a handful of legendary business travelers.
But above all else, “Up in the Air” is mostly about Ryan’s relationship with two women, roles deftly played by two actresses who could be on the Oscar boarding list.
The first is Natalie (Anna Kendrick of the “Twilight” series), a prim up-and-comer who has convinced their boss (Jason Bateman) that millions can be saved by keeping Ryan in Omaha and firing all those people via teleconferencing. Alarmed by this threat to his peripatetic lifestyle, Ryan demands that Natalie accompany him on his next trip so she can study his methods, which must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.
Then there’s Alex (Vera Farmiga of “The Departed”), a businesswoman he meets in (where else?) an airport and who appears to be an emotional carbon copy of Ryan. The film is a long cautious dance as Ryan slowly takes stock of his life and realizes it may be time to take a chance and open himself up.
REVIEW “Up in the Air”
Rating: R for strong language and some sexual situations Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick Directed by: Jason Reitman Showing at: Opening today in Wichita-area theaters