"Up in the Air" makes Clooney's character Ryan Bingham examine not only his heartless job in the corporate world, but confront the distance he keeps from people in real life. (Dale Robinette / Paramount Pictures)
Ryan Bingham likes floating above it all, disconnected.
He spends a good deal of his time in airplanes, flying overhead the world far below, and he loves the detachment. He has no close ties to other people and few possessions although he obviously makes good money.
Because when he does set down on the ground, he's darn good at his job. Bingham, you see, is a contractor employers bring in to lay off their workers when they don't have the hearts or guts to do so themselves.
He's got a script down that applies to just about any worker anywhere. He has the tone of a consulting doctor just before surgery -- calming, assured. He hands you a folder with suggestions for your new life ahead.
And then you're out the door. And he's back "Up in the Air."
Director Jason Reitman brings such splendid balance and nuance to Bingham's story that you can't hate the man; indeed you end up pitying him. And George Clooney brings such overpowering charm to the character that you can believe he has charged right through life with a soul as empty as his rarely visited apartment.
But then two women enter Bingham's world, and things begin to unravel. Both are mirrors of his own self, and eventually he's shaken by what he sees in those reflections.
The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow businesswoman who also logs countless miles in the air. They meet cute, comparing air and hotel perks, then fall into a breezy series of meet-you-in-Miami quickies that slowly develop into more than either bargained for.
The second woman is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a recent grad hired by Bingham's firm who has come up with an even more cold-hearted way to effect layoffs -- via a computer monitor.
If her plan goes into effect, Bingham will lose his ability to fly endlessly on the company card, so he convinces their boss (Jason Bateman) to let him take her out on the road to learn the realities of their business.
Soon enough Bingham is confronting some realities himself -- about his work, about the distance he keeps from others, about all those hours logged far from the earth below.
Reitman's juggling act here is impressive, because even as "Up in the Air" is indeed a film about layoffs and corporate brutality -- he uses interviews with many people who've lost their jobs throughout the film, including some from Detroit -- at the same time it's fun to watch a good deal of the time.
That's because, against that backdrop, Reitman is playing out a classic romantic comedy with Bingham and Alex, and a coming-of-age story with Natalie.
Indeed, the incredibly natural Farmiga, best known for "The Departed," offers Clooney his best onscreen chemistry of the decade -- the two are like tennis partners batting banter back and forth across the screen, their eyes awash all the while with attraction.
Please, somebody put these two in a movie again.
Kendrick, meanwhile, scores the breakthrough of the year as the over-assured Natalie, whose confidence begins to come undone the moment she has to travel out and actually meet people with Bingham.
Reitman co-wrote the script with Sheldon Turner, adapting Walter Kirn's novel. Obviously Bingham's job took on greater importance as the current recession began ravaging American families.
But in the end, this isn't a movie about the economy -- it's about the importance of connection, the value of grounding, the ultimate need to be tethered to something or someone. Jobs, lovers, friends, they offer these ties, and when one fails the others take on even more importance.
As Ryan Bingham discovers, if you fly alone, you may eventually drift off beyond the clouds, where oxygen is scarce and the sky turns dark. "Up in the Air" makes you want to cling to the earth.