Up in the Air

Up in the Air has a marvelous premise. It says: Imagine getting fired — and not directly by your boss, but by George Clooney on behalf of your boss.

OK, not Clooney exactly, but close. It’s him playing the part of Ryan Bingham, roving downsizer, despoiler of livelihoods. “Career transition counselor” is how he’d put it, looking you right in the eye with that Clooney gleam all the while, as if to add: Sure, it’s bullshit, but here we are. It’s not clear just where this guy swooped in from, maybe nowhere at all, but there’s the sense that in another moment he’ll all too contentedly have disappeared right back into the ether and on to the next victim.

Well, you’d be stunned, of course. Faced with this familiar suavity and surety, this matinee-idol pretense of cynicism, and wondering how you’d ever been gullible enough to think his evidently empty life could deserve your projected fantasies. You had dreams once, he’d be saying now, daring to twist the knife, but you deferred them; maybe this isn’t an ending at all — maybe it’s a beginning, a real opportunity.

Certainly it is for writer-director Jason Reitman, whose ambitious, unnervingly timely adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel has found exactly the right actor to embody its peregrine protagonist. And in order to transplant him into a film and into today’s economy, Reitman, who shares screenwriting credit with Sheldon Turner, has concocted a rich array of supporting characters and cast them perfectly, too.

It isn’t long before this Bingham discovers he’s on the verge of being downsized himself, and accordingly tormented by a grimly driven b-school hatchling (Anna Kendrick) with the bright idea to do their company’s dirty work via cost-cutting video link. “There is a dignity to what I do,” he insists by way of protest, but we know the protocol of face-to-face firings matters to him mostly as the apparatus of his deliberately rootless, frequent-flier lifestyle.

Meanwhile, through a rally of mutual come-ons in an airport lounge, comparing first-class privileges and premium memberships, he also finds a like-minded lover (Vera Farmiga).

“I am the woman you don’t have to worry about,” she tells him levelly. “Sounds like a trap,” he says. This from a guy who gives the occasional self-help speech on the virtues of packing your whole life into one backpack. Her answer: “Think of me as yourself, but with a vagina.”

Bingham also has two sisters (Melanie Lynskey and Amy Morton), from whom, not surprisingly, he has become estranged. The fact of their lives seeming unfairly peripheral to the main story is in part what it’s about.

Clooney’s stylish aloofness has set the movie’s fundamental tone, but it’s the chemistry with these women that gives it a harmonic foundation. Just what does it mean to be this man’s equal, Reitman seems to be asking, and what is it worth? Up in the Air might have seemed like just another road movie — as viewed from 7 miles or so above the road — in which a closed heart gets pried open, and risks getting broken. It might have seemed like a classically inclined screwball battle-of-the-sexes comedy. But as the story deepens and the sinews of character emerge, it appears also to contain the trappings of great American tragedy.

It’s not just the framework of actual laid-off workers whose testimonies Reitman gathered in St. Louis and Detroit. It’s his own transparent ambivalence about just what a glossy Hollywood movie ought to do with them. Reitman definitely has a problem when his film opens with an invitation to revile Bingham’s platitudes about new beginnings, only to close with real newly unemployed interviewees making exactly those points in earnest. And he doesn’t necessarily have a solution. Up in the Air wants to examine alienation with clear eyes, but also to salve our most soul-curdling scarcities of personal opportunity — some of which, it suggests, are self-imposed.

So imagine yourself among the freshly axed, taking in Bingham’s canned, Clooneyish spiel about anybody who ever built an empire once standing where you are now. As a citizen of late-2009 America, does that make you feel better or worse?