The tale of an aloof, high-flying exec whose millions of frequent-flyer miles can’t keep him permanently above the emotional turbulence he seeks to avoid, “Up in the Air” is a slickly engaging piece of lightweight existentialism highlighted by winning turns from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Just as “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” did in their own ways, Jason Reitman’s third film cleverly taps into specific cultural aspects of the contemporary zeitgeist, although in a somewhat less comically convulsive manner. Unlike many of the characters onscreen, nobody is going to lose any jobs on the basis of their work here, as a buoyant commercial flight lies ahead.
Clooney has scarcely ever been more magnetic onscreen than he is here as Ryan Bingham, a gun-for-hire who specializes in the dirty work some corporate bosses don’t like to do themselves, firing employees. He’s great at his job, expert at suggesting to devastated workers that new horizons in life can now be explored, and he loves the lifestyle of spending most of his time in business class seats and upscale hotels; given that, at last count, he’s on the move 322 days per year, his modest apartment in Omaha resembles an undecorated motel room.
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Having adapted Walter Kirn’s novel with Sheldon Turner, Reitman generates much merriment in the way he lays out the particulars of Ryan’s m.o. Ryan delivers occasional motivation speeches on how you should be able to fit all that’s important to you into a backpack, and he practices what he preaches by traveling with just one carry-on bag. He receives top-level, members-only treatment at airports, car rental desks and hotels and, picking up a like-minded woman, Alex (Farmiga), in a lounge one night, impresses her by revealing he’s very close to achieving 10 million-mile frequent-flyer status.
Even though the central plot doesn’t involve Alex, her easy-come, easy-go relationship with Ryan represents the heart of the movie, simply because the rapport between the two characters — and, causally, between the actors — is so terrific. It’s not the hardest thing to write a seduction dance, but Reitman and the thesps keep the sex and keen sense of play between these two birds of a feather sparking through the entire running time, as the two keep working out ways to make their complicated schedules coincide. They’re simply one of the most fun couples seen onscreen in many a moon.
But there’s got to be a fly in the ointment, a bird in the engine, and her name is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a grad-school know-it-all and high-tech whiz who convinces Ryan’s boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), he can slash expenditures by firing people via video conferencing. Faced with a drastic lifestyle change at best and his own walking papers at worst, Ryan is ultimately obliged to accompany the humorless, pursed-lips hotshot on a tour to show her how he does it, and then attempt the changeover.
Reitman peppers the picture with montages of workers reacting to their sudden professional irrelevance; the incomprehension, fury, bewilderment, sense of injustice, hopelessness and despair with which these people express themselves is touching, honest and true, even if it is punched up for rhythmic and sometimes comic impact. These interludes obviously speak to modern times in a particularly pointed way, as does the fact that someone as accomplished, together and unimpeachable as Ryan could suddenly be perceived as a dinosaur due to a dubious technological advance.
The generational divide also gets a workout in the way the film humorously addresses the way the twentysomething Natalie sees the world, as opposed to the more seasoned perspectives of Ryan and Alex. Natalie thinks she has it all figured out, with career, relationship and life path all configured onto a timeline. For his part, Ryan believes he’s got it all worked out as well, and he does, as long as he doesn’t mind the lack of much human connection, not to even mention marriage or family, which he scoffs at as not for him. And perhaps they’re not.
All the same, he’s forced into an unanticipated degree of personal engagement when he attends the northern Wisconsin winter wedding of his younger sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), to regular guy Jim (Danny McBride). Bringing Alex along for fun, and just maybe because he feels something special for her, Ryan suffers the scorn of older sis Kara (Amy Morton) for having escaped the family ordinariness but also uses his mediating skills to put some difficulties right. But some final twists provoke a Peggy Lee is-that-all-there-is questioning that pretty much come with the territory of spending much of one’s life alone.
Impeccably groomed and with a ready answer to almost any remark anyone can throw at him,Clooney owns his role in the way first-rate film stars can, so infusing the character with his own persona that everything he does seems natural and right. The timing in the Clooney-Farmiga scenes is like splendid tennis, with each player surprising the other with shots but keeping the rally going to breathtaking duration.
Kendrick has the difficult task of playing the spoilsport; you can’t wait for her comeuppance, which is humorous when it does arrive. Complicating the animosity of Ryan and the viewer is the fact that Natalie is actually good at what she does, if still in need of life experience, which she begins to collect. Bateman’s role could have used some layering to at least clarify his relationship with Ryan, as to whether it’s personal or strictly professional.
Stunning overhead shots of numerous American cities provide sharp transitions as the characters zip around the country, although much of the action is played out on interchangeable airport-area locations. Production values are sparkling.