In Jason Reitman’s sleek dramedy Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an American, white-collar angel of death. He travels more than 300 days a year for a “career transition corporation,” meaning he roams the land firing the unwanted workers of big companies. He’s more at ease in the heavens than on earth, luxuriating in deluxe air travel and hotel accommodations. He passes through life like a platinum club phantom, and likes it that way.
Clooney’s Ryan is a charming, sensitive hatchet man who makes platitudes such as “This is just the beginning” sound plausible. He may even believe people will benefit from being laid off. In his spare time, he delivers a motivational speech titled “What’s in Your Back Pack?” that advocates life relieved not merely of unnecessary belongings, but overly demanding relationships.
With his cocky voice-over narration, Ryan could be the seasoned older brother to Aaron Eckhart’s swaggering tobacco lobbyist in Reitman’s film Thank You for Smoking. Clooney adds some world-weariness to his matinee-idol glamour, as if all the frequent-flyer miles are catching up to Ryan and he hasn’t yet realized it.
Up in the Air delivers some turbulence to Ryan’s life through a pair of fellow travelers. The company’s young rising star, Natalie, wants to replace Ryan with networked computers for long-distance layoffs, so Ryan takes her on the road to teach her some life lessons. He also becomes smitten with Alex (Vera Farmiga), another on-the-go corporate predator who shares Ryan’s adoration for VIP lounges and consequence-free sex. Farmiga conveys the seductive self-assurance of a classic movie siren, and makes such lines as “Imagine me as you, but with a vagina” sound sultry, not crass.
After Natalie and Ryan meet in a hotel bar, they compare their different preferred-passenger memberships in the funniest scene of status symbol one-upsmanship since the business card showdown in American Psycho. Up in the Air’s script, adapted by Reitman from Walter Kirn’s novel, nails the empty buzzwords of contemporary U.S. business. Natalie’s PowerPoint buzzword that blends “global” and “local” rings so true, it’s almost not even funny. Reitman captures the adolescent thrill of crashing the open bar of a company party, and looks for the appealing symmetry and bland serenity of hotel chains. He also captures some of the rawness of corporate termination by interspersing real laid-off people sharing their feelings alongside actors such as J.K. Simmons.
As the son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, the filmmaker emulates his father’s best comedic instincts without insulting his audience’s intelligence. Nevertheless, Up in the Air doesn’t stray far from Hollywood values, and when Ryan renews ties with his estranged family via his sister’s marriage, it’s obvious he’ll break his own advice and start loading up his emotional backpack. You can’t have a protagonist scoff at personal connections and relationships in an A-list production without grounding him by the end.
Though consistently witty and admirably ambiguous at the end, Up in the Air never contains as many surprises as you’d hope. (I even won $1 from a colleague by predicting a plot point mid-movie.) Up in the Air offers a first-class ticket all the way, but cruises from boarding gate to baggage claim with so few bumps, you may recall little of the trip.