"Up in the Air," the new Jason Reitman movie, is difficult to describe. It's not a romantic comedy, although it's very funny, and romance is one of its subjects. But it's not a straight drama, either, even though it pokes around in some dark corners of contemporary life. The picture is really one of a kind. And it's virtually perfect.
George Clooney, in one of his most supple performances, plays Ryan Bingham, corporate executioner. Ryan spends his life flying around the country at the behest of downsizing companies that bring him in to break the bad news to the employees they're laying off. It's a hideous job, but Ryan loves the life. He loves the anonymous luxe of his business-hotel suites, his VIP car-rental accounts, the first-class airport lounges and the massive amounts of frequent-flier miles he racks up. Who needs friends when there are always fellow passengers to talk to up in the air? Who needs a relationship when transient sex abounds? Who even needs a home? (Asked on a flight where he's from, he says, "I'm from here.")
But then two women enter Ryan's life and soon have him reconsidering all that he has heretofore held dear. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, terrific yet again). Alex is a corporate road warrior, too, and transient, no-strings sex is one of her specialties. ("Think of me as yourself," she tells Ryan, "with a vagina.") Ryan likes Alex, and soon they're slotting cross-country hookups into their complicated schedules. Before long, Ryan starts to really like her. Now what?
The second woman on the scene is a perky young bean-counter named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick of the "Twilight" movies in a star-making performance). Natalie is a newly arrived exec at Ryan's company, and she's brought with her a big idea: Instead of paying to fly guys like Ryan around the country to lower the boom on discarded employees, why not just conduct these firings over the Internet, via iChat, right from the company's Omaha headquarters?
Ryan hates this idea. Apart from the threat it poses to his unencumbered lifestyle, he feels it lacks the human touch. After all, this is a delicate business: "We take people at their most fragile and we set them adrift." But Ryan's boss, the suavely heartless Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), is hot for Natalie's plan. Since she's never actually fired anybody, though, he tells Ryan to take her out on the road for one last go-round and show her how it's done.
So he does. Among other things, he teaches Natalie how to travel. Never check luggage, for one thing — a carry-on wheelie is the way to go. (Ryan is all about bare essentials.) Also, always get in line behind Asians at the airport security checkpoint — they pack light and move through quickly. The hardest lesson Natalie learns is how to face a person she's never met before and will never see again and tell them, out of nowhere, that they're getting the ax. These scenes are extraordinarily affecting because the people we see being coldly sacked are non-actors — they're people who really were recently fired from longtime jobs at the time the movie was made, and they're reliving their responses. (Reitman recruited them through newspaper ads in Detroit and St. Louis. As he says in the film's production notes, "We got so many submissions, it was heartbreaking.")
Natalie, for her part, tries to get Ryan to see the error of his entire worldview. How can he never want to get married, have a home and kids? She might as well be speaking Venusian. (Ryan has a sideline giving motivational speeches to business groups, in which he says things like, "Relationships are the heaviest components in your life. You don't need to carry all that weight.") The man is hopeless. Or is he?
The movie is based on a book by Walter Kirn; Sheldon Turner did an early draft of the script, then Reitman went to work on it himself. This is only his third feature (after "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno"), but he's already a master of populist mainstream filmmaking, a director whose complex comic touch recalls golden-age auteurs like Preston Sturges and Frank Capra (but without Capra's soppiness). The characters here keep peeling away layers of personality — they keep evolving — and we're never sure what they'll do next. (The movie is full of surprises.) Will they do the right thing? In such a cruelly uncertain world, do they even know what that would be?
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Until the Light Takes Us, also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Up in the Air."
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