"You have to try not to take this personally," Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is fond of saying when he's doing his job: Informing people that their position at their company "is no longer available." Ryan is smooth and calm and better than anyone at his job. He is sympathetic but detached, kind but firm, sensitive but blunt. He is a corporate cleaner, a guy bosses call in to do what they can't do themselves -- tell their longtime, faithful, hardworking employees they are being laid off.
This line of work requires a special sort of person, and Ryan was born for the job. To say he has no feelings would be unfair: He does have them, of course. He's just learned to neglect them to the point where they barely exist. Up in the Air is the story of a person who has fooled himself into believing that he has no emotional needs -- he'd beg to differ with that "no man is an island'' bit -- and has invested his energy into more tangible, less complicated goals.
For example, Ryan is obsessed with achieving what only six people before him have done: Amassing 10 million miles on American Airlines, a feat that would earn him perks (including a private, 24-hour hotline) any businessman would kill for. When informed by his boss (Jason Bateman) that their company is considering a new way of conducting business -- they're planning to start laying off people via webcam teleconferences -- Ryan's mileage dream is threatened. He's most comfortable in airports and airplanes: Being grounded sounds like a nightmare. Being grounded would force him to make connections -- the human kind.
Up in the Air, which was adapted from Walter Kirn's novel by writer-director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno), is a smashing, elegant entertainment that also happens to be a zeitgeist movie. Reitman intersperses interviews with ordinary people who have been laid off throughout the film, asking them to re-create for the camera what they told their bosses the day they lost their jobs. The pain and frustration they convey grounds the movie with an uncommon level of realism: This may be a glossy Hollywood picture made by rich people, but its empathy for the audience feels truer and more genuine than patronizing, feel-good claptrap such as The Blind Side.
Clooney has no peer at conveying suave, unflappable charm, but the role of Ryan requires the actor to do something different with his persona: Deflate the illusion and explore the emptiness beneath the cool. On one of his countless nights spent at a hotel bar, Ryan meets Alex (the wonderful Vera Farmiga), a traveling businesswoman and kindred spirit. Like him, she appears to crave freedom, loathe attachments and appreciate the heft and weight of a special-edition credit card ("Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina," she tells him). And they begin a casual affair, meeting up in cities whenever their paths cross.
In the film's best scene, Ryan and Alex have a frank, ask-me-anything conversation with his new trainee, Natalie (Twilight's Anna Kendrick), who is in her early 20s and still believes in all the things the pragmatic grown-ups know aren't necessarily true: Storybook romances, true love, happy endings. What is so invigorating about that scene -- and so true of the movie as a whole -- is that the characters' practicality never edges into cynicism. The prevailing mood of Up in the Air is melancholy, and its ending surprises you by refusing to fold into neat resolution. The movie is ambiguous about just how OK things will be for its characters after the credits have rolled. But Up in the Air is also optimistic about the perpetual themes that preoccupy so many movies that endure the test of time: Life is better with company. And everybody needs a co-pilot.
Up in the Air opens Friday, Dec. 4 at the AMC Sunset Place in Miami and expands to more theaters Dec. 11.