There is something oddly familiar about Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, in which George Clooney plays a commitment-phobic business traveler with no use for meaningful human interaction. Could have sworn we've been here before. When was it? Oh, yes, of course: Joel and Ethan Coen's Intolerable Cruelty, released in the fall of 2003 and forgotten by that year's first freeze. The screwball comedy with a dizzying topspin featured Clooney as Miles Massey, the divorce lawyer who was the love of his own life, till she came along—Catherine Zeta-Jones, that Cinemascope devil in a red dress who convinced the heartless Miles he had, gulp, a soul. Which is why, just as he was set to deliver The Big Speech to a roomful of attorneys about how to gut unhappy couples, Miles stepped up to the microphone, tore up his prepared remarks and decided, instead, to speak "from the heart."
The scene replays itself, only slightly altered, in Reitman's very loose and awfully affecting adaptation of Walter Kirn's 2001 novel about Ryan Bingham, who, when he's not busy traversing the flyover states delivering pink slips, delivers motivational speeches in hotel ballrooms about emptying out one's metaphoric backpack. "How much does your life weigh?" he asks his audience, before ticking off all the "stuff" that turns one's life into a parade of "negotiations, arguments, secrets, compromises." Ditch it all, he demands; live unencumbered, without commitment, without companionship, without love.
Only, just maybe, the preacher is still capable of conversion. He'll speak from the heart...just, just, wait a minute, it's around here somewhere. This is no spoiler; pat resolutions are not Up in the Air's endgame.
Up in the Air
Up in the Air Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman. Based on the novel by Walter Kirn. Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman. Opens Friday.
"All the things you probably hate about traveling," Ryan says in voiceover, "are warm reminders I am home." And so begins his tale, in which contemporary corporate woe is commingled with old-fashioned movie-star romance is laced with sincerity and smarts till it adds up to something pretty special.
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Up in the Air begins as a dark joke in which the unencumbered man sees himself not as the firing squad, but as a liberator come to rescue the self-exiled from their cubicle cells. He doesn't hurt; he heals. Ryan flies to a strange town 322 days out of the year to sleep in a strange hotel, walk into a strange office, hand strangers their fate, offer them canned condolences, then hustle to a strange airport to begin the ritual anew—all to reach the personal goal of 10 million miles flown for no other reason than "I'd be the seventh person to do it," he explains.
Then the women board, one by one, till Ryan is crowded out of his first-class narcissism. First, there is Alex (Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares a one-nighter in a Dallas-Fort Worth International hotel; they bond over their obsession with frequent-flier bonuses and rental-car company service. Then there's Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the cocky Cornell grad who threatens to ruin Ryan's life altogether: She has convinced the boss (Jason Bateman) that it's possible to fire remotely. So Ryan is tasked with training Natalie—to show her how it feels to ruin someone's life at close range. And then there's Ryan's sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), whose pending wedding brings with it the kind of baggage that cannot be checked at the counter.
Where do they all fit in? And can they? It's clear that Ryan's in store for some kind of emotional transformation, but it's so elegantly played that you'll actually believe it. If Steven Soderbergh taught Clooney how to act in Out of Sight, then Reitman has taught him how to stop acting. This is the most vulnerable, the most playful, the most human performance of his career.
Nothing enormous happens in Up in the Air. Just the average pain suffered by mortals who, whether in the sky or on land, are looking for firmer ground.