Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking) has a casually confident sense of tone among young mainstream directors working right now, and in Up in the Air, he uses that deft touch to explore the compartmentalized life of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a for-hire corporate hatchetman. Ryan is the sharp-dressed man who bosses hire when they have to fire somebody — or downsize an entire department — and don’t have the spine to do it themselves. Ryan is extremely competent at his job, and he loves it.
In fact, he loves everything about it. He loves jetting around the country at 30,000 feet. He loves the anonymous, antiseptic homogeneity of preferred-customer waiting areas, business hotels, chain-restaurant fine dining, airport bestsellers, minibar cocktails, and prepackaged snacks. And while he doesn’t love firing people, he does see himself as having a responsibility: He’s meeting people at the worst moment of their lives, and it’s his duty to make that transition as painless as possible.
Liberally adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, Air serendipitously arrives in theaters at a time when the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, roughly double what it was prior to the current recession (4.9 percent). Reitman dives straight into the face-slap of job termination, opening with a montage of people being laid off. It’s a somewhat cheeky way of introducing Ryan, but it makes one fact crystal clear from the very beginning: Ryan Bingham is basically a soulless douchebag.
Credit Reitman for recognizing the superficiality of Clooney’s onscreen charm, and credit Clooney for allowing his stardom to be so thoroughly exploited. Ryan thinks he’s as happy as any man can be, a situation a young corporate whippersnapper at his Omaha-based employer threatens with her business strategy. Ivy Leaguer Natalie Keener (a superb Kendrick) has developed a way for “termination facilitators” to do their job via remote video, eliminating the need to crisscross the country in person. Ryan argues with his boss (Bateman) that it won’t work, that there are aspects of the job that require human interaction that Natalie doesn’t know about. So Ryan gets taxed with bringing Natalie along for practical on-the-job training, during which time they each learn more about their chosen profession.
That sounds hokey — and parts of it unabashedly are — but for better or worse, Retiman dots their circuitous journey across America’s workplaces with image after image of mundane corporate failure — entire office floors with only a few workstations and employees, a large corner office overfilled with unneeded rolling chairs — that become a somber visual haiku.
And that element may be what keeps the movie from feeling cynically opportunistic, for as breezy as it often feels, it’s also unsentimentally depressing. Reitman makes the curious choice to let his lead character change while his situation doesn’t, and leaves Ryan comfortable at cruising altitude, although his view from business class will never be the same. — Bret McCabe