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? And where? 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, 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." Poor bastard never knew what hit him.
The scene replays itself, only slightly altered, in Reitman's loose and 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 one's metaphoric backpack. "How much does your life weigh?" he asks his audience before ticking off all the "stuff" (from shelves full of knickknacks to family) 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.
"All the things you probably hate about traveling," Ryan says in voice-over, "are warm reminders I am home." And so begins his tale, in which contemporary corporate woe is commingled with old-fashioned movie-star romance laced with sincerity and smarts till it adds up to something pretty special. We play the passengers, stuck next to Ryan on a plane, the part-time intimates to whom he smugly narrates his life story. And through Ryan, Reitman has found his voice — somewhere between the satirist he aspired to be with Thank You for Smoking and the humanist on display in Juno.
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. And, even better, he does so in a different city every day: Ryan flies to a strange town 322 days of the year to sleep in a strange hotel, walk into a strange office, hand strangers their fate, offer them canned condolences that come out at least sounding sincere, and 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. "More people have walked on the moon." (Ryan's actual home is a barren apartment in Omaha, Nebraska — Alexander Payne should sue.)
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 Airport hotel; they bond over their obsession with frequent-flier bonuses and rental-car-company service. She's his kind of gal: a part-time lover who'll commit only as far as the next connecting flight will take her. 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, over an internet connection. So Ryan is tasked with training Natalie — 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 Ryan is in store for some kind of emotional transformation — that's why studios make movies such as Up in the Air — but it's so elegantly played, you'll actually believe it. There's also a reason studios cast George Clooney. If Steven Soderbergh taught Clooney how to act in Out of Sight, Reitman has taught him how to stop acting. This is the most vulnerable, the most playful, the most human performance of his career. Reitman is as much a softie as the Coens are cynics — and it turns out Clooney thrives with the former.
Nothing enormous happens in Up in the Air — no great tragedy, no big melodrama. Just the average pain suffered by mortals who, whether in the sky or on land, are looking for firmer ground.