For most people there’s no joy in sucking down recycled oxygen while hurtling above the clouds. The free drinks and freshly baked cookies in business might be nice. (I wouldn’t know.) For most of us, though, air travel largely invokes the indignities of the stockyard, complete with the crowding and pushing, the endlessly long lines, hovering handlers, carefully timed feedings, a faint communal reek and underlying whiff of peril. The skies rarely seem friendly anymore, but to Ryan Bingham, the corporate assassin played by George Clooney in the laugh-infused stealth tragedy “Up in the Air,” they’re so welcoming, he might as well be home.
And so he is. Like many high-altitude border crossers who sometimes seem alone in keeping the airlines aloft, those business types with the corrugated brows, juggling BlackBerrys and double-shot lattes, Bingham lives in between here and there, home and away. The difference is, he loves interstitial living, finds comfort and more in all the spaces associated with airports and airplanes or in what Walter Kirn, in his novel that inspired the film, calls Airworld. “To know me is to fly with me,” Bingham says in the film, like an airborne Descartes. It’s as if as a child he had heard — and heeded — the call of the female attendants for National Airlines who, in the gilded flying age, used to purr, “Fly Me.” Back when flying meant soaring.
That was then, this is now, and this is here, meaning the crash-and-burn-baby-burn America in which one man’s economic crisis is another’s golden opportunity. This is our moment, enthuses Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman, pitch perfect), the unctuous pragmatist for whom Bingham works if rarely sees in person. Some men hunt heads, others — like Bingham — lop them off. A “career transition” counselor, he crisscrosses the country firing employees whose bosses won’t pull the plug themselves. Racking up scalps and miles might seem like a tough way to make a living. Yet it suits Bingham, a solo act for whom no hotel room is too depressing or crowd too lonely, which makes him ripe for the dramatic picking.
The young director Jason Reitman initially takes a hard-sell approach to Bingham, putting the character — and of course Mr. Clooney — front, center and under flattering light, as if he were selling a luxury car or diamond watch, which in some ways he is. In fighting trim, Mr. Clooney looks suitably sleek, even when dressed in the generic business clothes he’s soon packing into a suitcase, a task that’s captured in a series of precisely framed, rapid shots. Expressive of both efficiency and a routinized existence, this sequence is itself an economic narrative device (one Mr. Reitman repeats). But it also comes across as glib, a shortcut to character, making it hard to know if it’s Bingham who’s the slick one here or Mr. Reitman.
The answer is both, though Mr. Reitman is working harder than it first appears and more than he did in either “Juno” or “Thank You for Smoking,” his only other features. The son of a funnyman (his father, the producer-director Ivan Reitman, helped bankroll this movie), the younger Mr. Reitman seems to have been weaned on screwball comedies — he likes women and teasing patter — and classic Hollywood is in his blood. “Up in the Air” is an assertively, and unapologetically, tidy package, from its use of romance to instill some drama into the narrative (the book introduces disease instead) and the mope-rock tunes that Mr. Reitman needlessly overuses. When you have Mr. Clooney and Vera Farmiga on camera, you don’t need some professional emoticon mewling away on the soundtrack.
Ms. Farmiga enters the picture, legs and intelligence flashing, just around the time you think that nothing much is going to happen with Bingham. (A crash? a terrorist strike?) As Alex, a fast-moving businesswoman, Ms. Farmiga bats around the double-entendres effortlessly and brings out real warmth and palpable vulnerability in her co-star. To watch them together — particularly during their later scenes, when they visit Bingham’s hometown — is to realize just how much alone time Mr. Clooney clocks in his movies. It says something about the dearth of strong female stars in American cinema that he hasn’t been this well matched with a woman since Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 caper film “Out of Sight.” (In the years since, Brad Pitt has been playing Rosalind Russell to Mr. Clooney’s Cary Grant in the “Ocean’s” movies.)
One of the pleasures of “Up in the Air” is that its actresses — including Anna Kendrick, who plays Bingham’s colleague Natalie — share the frame with Mr. Clooney as equals, not props. The ferocious Ms. Kendrick, her ponytail swinging like an ax, grabs every scene she’s in, which works for her go-getter (go-get-him) character, who is sent out on the road with Bingham as part of an efficiency campaign. She’s a monster for our times: a presumed human-resources expert who, having come of age in front of a computer, has no grasp of the human. By contrast Bingham, who fires people face to face with a small smile and pat speech, comes across as the good guy, though only if you forget what he does for a living.
Mr. Reitman successfully exploits the seeming disconnect between his star (whom we can’t help but like) and the character he plays (whom we want to like, simply because he’s played by Mr. Clooney), so much so that it takes some time for you to notice the approaching darkness. Mr. Reitman certainly hints at the trouble to come: however bright Mr. Clooney’s smile, there is something terribly off about Bingham’s blithe attitude both toward his own existential reality and his profession. Instructively, it is how Mr. Reitman circles around the character, showing how Bingham’s actions affect not just him, but also those around him — including the people he fires — that deepen the movie if not its peripatetic center.
There are different ways into “Up in the Air,” which can be viewed as a well-timed snapshot of an economically flailing America, appreciated as a study in terminal narcissism or dismissed as a sentimental testament to traditional coupling. A wedding subplot, for one, involving Bingham’s sisters (Melanie Lynskey and Amy Morton), which brings him closer to Alex, threatens to swamp the story in sentimentality. Yet to put too much stock in this detour (which also involves Danny McBride) is to flatten a film bristling with contradictions. Certainly you can fall for Bingham, maybe even shed a tear for him, though don’t get carried away (as he does) or mistake him for some kind of hero. The truer tragedy here, as the repeated images of fired men and women suggest, doesn’t belong to him.
“Up in the Air” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Adult language and partial female nudity if not (alas) male.
UP IN THE AIR
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Mr. Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Dana E. Glauberman; music by Rolfe Kent; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki and Jeffrey Clifford; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.
WITH: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Sam Elliott (Maynard Finch), J. K. Simmons (Bob), Zach Galifianakis (Steve) and Chris Lowell (Kevin).