The protagonist of Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham, is a hatchet man for hire. The Omaha company that employs him, which goes by the Orwellian name Career Transition Counseling (CTC), rents him out to other companies to fire employees they don’t have the courage to fire themselves. He flies about the country, touching down briefly in Kansas City or Tulsa or Miami, to walk into offices he has never visited and tell workers he has never met that they are being let go. There are tears, and rages, and Bingham accepts them with unflappable grace.
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that his detached demeanor is less a corollary of his job than vice versa. Charming and affable--did I mention he is played by George Clooney?--Bingham is nonetheless an emphatic rebuttal of John Donne’s adage about men and islands: romantically uncommitted, distant from family, and in pursuit of a side business as a self-help lecturer who preaches the gospel of emotional disencumbrance. Last year, he informs us, he spent 322 days traveling, “which means I had to spend 43 miserable days at home.” His true residence is a stool in the airport lounge, a room at the Hilton, a seat in the first class cabin. He is, quite literally, above it all.
At least, that is, until his boss (Jason Bateman) upsets the delicate equilibrium of his life by informing him that the wheels of capitalism require even more lubrication than CTC currently provides. A fresh-faced B-school graduate, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), has come up with a plan to fire folks via video link, a move that would end Bingham’s obsessive accretion of airline miles. When Bingham protests that she doesn’t understand the value of the face-to-face interaction, that “there is a dignity to what I do,” he is tasked with taking his young colleague on the road--or rather, to the air--to show her just exactly what that is.
In the course of his travels, Bingham encounters a kindred spirit in skirt and heels named Alex (Vera Farmiga), whose carnal enthusiasm is exceeded only by her aversion to emotional entanglement, a mirror to his own. (“Think of me as yourself,” she tells him, “but with a vagina.”) The two first meet in a hotel bar, of course, and conduct foreplay by comparing elite-status cards and frequent flyer miles. When he declines to disclose the latter figure, she places her palms a foot apart and inquires coyly, “Is it this big?” “I don’t want to brag,” he demurs. Her job requires nearly as much flight time as his, so the two meet for a series of romantic interludes at airport hotels, culminating with his invitation that she accompany him to his sister’s wedding, an experiment in intimacy on more than one front.
Reitman directs Up in the Air with a light touch, offering a kind of upbeat existentialism. Though it is a story about Bingham’s isolation, the character is in a near-constant state of interaction: with Alex, with Natalie, with his sister (Melanie Lynskey) and her fiancé (Danny McBride), and with the litany of unfortunates whom he steers gently into unemployment (including J. K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis). This is a man who has kept to himself not by hiding from the world but by spreading himself across it so thinly that no one else ever has access to more than a sliver.
Clooney wears the role with such ease that it is difficult to imagine any other actor even attempting it. Smooth, intelligent, and exquisitely comfortable in his own skin, his Bingham is a born talker, whether coaxing a fired employee down from the ledge of despair or inviting a roomful of seminar attendees to empty their metaphorical “backpacks” of a lifetime’s worth of commitments. Moreover, the sharp, literate script (adapted from the Walter Kirn novel by Reitman and Sheldon Turner) offers Clooney a wealth of good lines with plenty left over for the rest of the cast, in particular the excellent Farmiga.
There are scattered missteps--a conversation with a reluctant groom that could have used a few more beats, a series of cameos by laid-off workers testifying to the Importance of Family that make the movie’s moral more explicit than it need have been--but overall Reitman delivers, with Clooney’s assistance, one of the nimblest grownup entertainments of recent years. (In light of this film’s quality and Jennifer’s Body’s distinct lack thereof, it is high time to reevaluate how much of Juno’s success was due to Reitman’s direction and how much to Diablo Cody’s script.)
If there is a broader complaint to be made of the film--and I’m of two minds whether there is--it’s that, it, too, floats along the surface a bit. With the exception of a wedding montage set to a song by the soon-to-be-far-better-known Sad Brad Smith, Up in the Air rarely makes a strong emotional connection. This may be inevitable in the case of Clooney’s character--it is, after all, difficult to care too deeply about the isolation of a man who does not care too deeply about it himself--but it extends to the rest of the film as well: the girl who has her heart broken, the workers whose lives are abruptly shattered.
This reluctance to dig deeper may be the difference between a very good film, which Up in the Air is by any reasonable measure, and a great one. As it is, Reitman has given us a witty, elegant movie that is nonetheless, like its protagonist, somewhat aloof from the vicissitudes experienced by mere mortals.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.