George Clooney may not possess tremendous range, but he sure knows his sweet spot. In “Up in the Air,” the highly anticipated third feature from “Juno” director Jason Reitman, Clooney plays a man who likes to control his enviornment. As the corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham, he portrays the standard overly confident hustler, hiding doubt behind a smirking facade. Like a vaguely sentimental Michael Clayton, Bingham relishes his dirty work, treating the art of the firing process as his personalized religion. Trading a settled life for the swirl of work addiction, he’s a lonely guru of his own making.
Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, “Up in the Air” focuses on Bigham’s solemn existence drifting around the country on a constant mission of letting people down in style. With recession in full swing, business is booming for Bingham, turning him into a thoroughly modern symbol. “We are here to make limbo tolerable,” he explains to his mechanically driven new recruit (Anna Kendrick) to repudiate her systematic approach. But in the process of putting a human face on the looming threat of downsizing, Bingham loses touch with his own needs. He grows addicted to the tenuous safety zones of comfy hotel rooms and airport lobbies, relegating his place in the world — as one close confidante observes — to “a cocoon of self-banishment.”
With three highly likable movies to his name, Reitman has established himself as thoroughly competent filmmaker, but he constantly avoids a singular voice. “Up in the Air” does not resemble “Juno” or “Thank You for Smoking” in any regard beyond the fact that all of them focus on moody, intelligent creatures addicted to the flawed belief that they’re smarter than everyone else. Bingham’s underlying weakness comes out when he falls for the equally smarmy Alex (Vera Farmiga), another weary traveler with a similarly nomadic lifestyle.
Nevertheless, he refuses to admit his need to settle down. “I tell people how to avoid commitment,” he claims. He relishes the opportunity to issue lay offs as a means of bringing people down to his level of dissatisfaction so he can convince them that it’s not so bad. During his speaking engagements, he applies a simplistic “empty backpack” metaphor to explain how key to happiness lies in cutting loose. The advice rings hollow: Reitman constantly frames Clooney boxed in, sadly gazing out windows and grappling to retain his grasp on reality.
Populated by a handful of assured performances, “Up in the Air” is first and foremost an actor’s movie. In addition to steady deliveries from Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick, the movie also contains significant roles for typically comedic actors Jason Bateman and Danny McBride, each of whom display previously unforeseen range. Gently witty, the movie takes some time to find a fully engaging groove, especially when you consider the ecstatic welcome it has received from the critical establishment. The bulk of the running time is smoothly engaging, perhaps even more than usual because movies about midlife crisis tend to drag. The final third, however, emboldens the strength of the entire picture as Bingham finally confronts his depressing nature. There’s a wholly non-commercial touch to the implication that nothing really changes in an insulated life. In the early scenes of “Up in the Air,” Bingham jokingly wonders: “Who the fuck am I?” The answer, delivered in the magnificent final shot, is sweepingly tragic and impossible to forget.