In economic times as shaky as these, it takes a certain amount of bravery to make your movie's hero a businessman who fires people as a profession, but that's what Jason Reitman does with Up in the Air. That he makes his main character sympathetic is just one of the film's startling achievements.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) makes his living personally handing out pink slips -- he's the top hatchet man at a company that other companies hire when they are downsizing. And since business is booming, his job keeps him on the go constantly. He flies all across the country, staying in a series of nice hotels. And although this itinerant lifestyle prevents him from having any kind of stable, regular life, this doesn't bother him in the slightest -- he's thrilled to be a boy in a traveling bubble. During one particular layover, he strikes up a conversation with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow savvy traveler. They bond over the ins and outs of various airlines and hotels, and quickly fall into bed. By morning, they are figuring out when their schedules will allow them to meet up again, even though they both make it clear that there are no strings attached.
When Ryan arrives back in the home office, he meets no-nonsense career-oriented twentysomething Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a fast-rising up-and-comer who wants to change the company's practices and save millions by having the staff fire people remotely via webcams. Furious at the thought of losing a lifestyle he's grown quite comfortable with, he convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) to let him take Natalie on a few trips so that she can learn what it's really like to fire someone.
She learns the ins and outs of dealing with people who've been given the worst news of their lives -- how to handle them firmly but calmly, while serving up a few inspirational platitudes. Clooney brings to these sequences a maturity we haven't seen in his other work -- honestly, if you had to be fired you would want Ryan to do it. But it's precisely the character's ability to comfortably cut ties that makes him a loner in his private life. He conveys Ryan's lone wolf persona not as a defense against life -- a mask to cover up some hidden pain -- but simply as just the way the guy is. That makes his slow transformation -- his realization that Alex might be something more than just another friend with benefits -- all the more realistic.
Clooney may be in every scene, but he's far from the only performer who gets to shine: Farmiga might be one of the few actresses who can match him when it comes to playful sexiness; Kendrick finds depth in a part that could have been little more than a stereotypical high-strung go-getter; and J.K. Simmons breaks your heart as one of Ryan's many victims.
For its first half, Up in the Air combines the workplace comedy with the road movie, and it's an engaging, entertaining melding of those two durable genres. But where the film surprises is by changing gears halfway through into a bittersweet family comedy. Ryan's sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married, and, for possibly the first time in his life, he wants to make a real connection with his siblings. This follows through on yet another plot strand -- Ryan's attempt to make a living as a self-help guru. He has a side gig lecturing about how to manage your life, and he stresses that the weight of relationships in our lives slows us down when life is all about moving forward. Up in the Air is about Ryan learning what's true and what isn't about this speech he's been giving for years.
Reitman's film is so ambitious you can't shake the feeling he's trying to create "The Great American Movie," a summation of where we are right now at the close of the 21st century's first decade. Up in the Air is so truthful, poignant, and entertaining, so assured with its adherence to classical Hollywood structure, that he just might have pulled it off.