Ryan Bingham is at home in the clouds. And in airports. He likes it that way. "To know me is to fly with me," he declares.
When you're a man who jets into town, visits a company and supervises layoffs — "career transition interviews" for people whose careers he has just ended and whose lives his employer, their company, has just hurled off the tracks — "moving is living." He can't let himself be bogged down. No attachments, no place to call home. Just him and his ever-accumulating frequent-flier miles. He even has the occasional speaking engagement in which he espouses that lifestyle.
But Bingham, played to off-putting perfection by George Clooney, is living an empty life. If you're not grounded by something, some place, someone, you're lost, floating by, trapped Up in the Air.
Director Jason Reitman's dry, moving "comedy," based on the Walter Kirn novel, is a sly indictment of corporate America, marketing America and frequent-flying America. Bingham can put on his game face and feign sympathy to people who weep, vent, rage and threaten suicide when he breaks the news that their longtime employer doesn't have the guts to: that they're being fired. He understands.
"We take people at their most fragile, and we set them adrift."
But when his company (Jason Bateman is the boss) decides there are more efficient ways to show people the door, Bingham has his wake-up call. Not that he answers on the first ring. First, he has to escort a callous young technocrat (Anna Kendrick, terrific) on the road, teach her the ropes. He has to want more than airport motel flings with "the woman you don't have to worry about" (Vera Farmiga).
Reitman shows us the sterility of this rootless life and a hint of its romance. Bingham's high-mileage status affords him perks that he accrues greedily, as if that is his sole purpose. But as frosty as he can be, he gets it. This isn't all there is, and maybe having somebody — family, "the kid" he is teaching this line of work to, a lover to call his own — is the answer. Maybe that lack of baggage isn't to be coveted and jealously guarded.
Clooney walks this tightrope with a devil-may-care skill, suggesting heartlessness one moment (often in his narration), kindness the next. Kendrick brings all the perspective-lacking cruelty of youth to her girl-who-learns-to-care role, and Farmiga is brutally sexy as Bingham's mirror image — a woman with his values, his agenda, if not his miles.
Reitman lightens his satiric touch with this, his third film. He's made a movie that perfectly captures the moment and the mood of America in mid-recession, the paper chase that only a shock to the system like losing one's job reveals. Juggling these many balls Up in the Air, he has given us one of the very best pictures of the year.