Sit next to the sharply dressed Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on a plane and he’d gladly unpack his carry-on of inspirational messages. You look like you need to talk, he’d say, and he’d be right because what traveler wouldn’t welcome a pleasant distraction from the crying babies, that pinging “fasten seatbelt” sign? Ryan Bingham is nothing if not an expert at diverting attention.
In truth, Ryan’s actually a professional distractor, though his business card proclaims his job title to be “termination consultant” or something similar in corporate speak. And in Jason Reitman’s witty, subtle and deeply felt “Up in the Air,” that’s just what Ryan does: fly around the country and distract people from reality — he’s firing them from their jobs because their bosses lack the guts — with chatter about new opportunities. The way he sees it, firings and layoffs translate into something valuable: the promise of motion. In fact, Ryan adopts “moving is living” as his credo of sorts. And Reitman structures “Up in the Air,” his witty, remarkably accomplished third film, around this mantra, not because he swallows it as gospel truth but because he understands how people can use — and abuse — the idea.
Ryan, played with maturity and grace by Clooney, deserves lifetime membership in the second group. The only time he sits still is on a plane. He lives out of compact suitcase, spending precious little time in his blank Omaha, Neb., apartment, and finds comfort in the sterility of rental cars and hotel suites. He believes he’s happy flitting from city to city, pushing toward a certifiably insane goal of 1 million frequent flyer miles, until two things happen to change his mind. Or, rather, two people happen. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, divine as always), a bold and sexy corporate traveler who informs Ryan: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” She seems a saucy match for Ryan, and he enjoys her company so much he begins to question his in-flight lifestyle.
Second comes Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a cutthroat Cornell grad with big ideas about streamlining (i.e., taking it online) the process Ryan’s perfected. He’s horrified by her suggestion his methods are obsolete and takes her on the road, where she sees, really sees, that the printed names on a list belong to people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but pay close attention to Kendrick’s expression as she sits in on firing after firing. There are so many emotions — indifference, surprise, horror — at play on her face that Kendrick turns these moving scenes into an epiphany. Though the experience affects her profoundly, she’s too stubborn to admit it. But Ryan observes the change in her eyes, and what he sees makes him own up to a distasteful truth: he long ago stopped buying the platitudes he’s selling. Maybe he never did.
Gently observant films like this require strong writing and performances captivating enough to make us want to investigate, to unearth the subtleties. In this regard, “Up in the Air” plays like Ensemble Acting 101; put simply, the acting is superb. Every actor, from those onscreen 10 minutes — Danny McBride injects humor as Ryan’s jittery future brother-in-law, while Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s estranged sister, radiates hope for reconciliation — to Clooney and Farmiga, rise to the challenge. Farmiga proves, as she did in “Down to the Bone” and “The Departed,” that she is an actress of exceptional warmth, and her chemistry with Clooney is palpable. Kendrick is a find, an actress possessed of the kind of talent that belies her 24 years; she makes us feel the sharp distress of her growing pains.
Turns as strong as these might lose steam without an achoring performance, and Clooney provides a measured but impressive one. He’s one of the rare actors who has allowed age to improve his talent. Clooney knows there’s more to Ryan than gimmicky speeches, and he hints at those depths with his changing eyes, his face, his body language. There were no shortcuts; he had to do some living to be ready for this performance. He did, he is and he finds good company in Reitman, who, with “Up in the Air,” has created the magnum opus of his young career and a snapshot of recession-era America.