Here is a film for the times. Up in the Air introduces us to Ryan Bingham, a corporate troubleshooter whose office is a moveable space between airport terminals, airport hotels and business-class seating high above the clouds. The tougher the economic climate, the more in demand Ryan has become, for his job is firing people whose bosses are too cowardly to pull the trigger themselves. He has perfected a whole spiel in delivering the bad news, and he can look his victims in the eye even as they rant, or plead, or curse, or cry. And the awful thing about this smooth assassin of hope is that he likes doing what he does – not the firing part, but the travelling, the perks and privileges of the frequent flyer, the protective cocoon that has crusted around his life of perpetual motion.
You would think him a dislikeable type, this Ryan Bingham, if you met him in life – for one thing, the only reason for meeting him would be so that he could fire you. But Up in the Air isn't life, it's a white-collar US tragicomedy, and Ryan is played by George Clooney, who makes himself very hard to dislike. True, there's a worrying air of complacency about him, and you might wonder at the state of a soul whose home is a poky impersonal apartment in Omaha that actually looks like one of the less ritzy hotel rooms he frequently stays in. When his boss (Jason Bateman) discloses a plan for a new mode of firing people – via a computer videolink, thus saving on airfares – he thinks Ryan will be pleased: "You get to come home," he explains. But Ryan doesn't want to come home, because there's nothing there for him: his life is up in the air, looking down on everyone.
The director Jason Reitman sets this up very cannily, sounding just the right note of hubris beneath Ryan's slickness. He has surprises in store, too, or at least what count for surprises in a mainstream Hollywood movie: there are two, arguably three, interestingly written women characters lying in wait for Clooney to play off. (Reitman's previous feature was Juno, so he's no stranger to the dramatic potential of a feisty female). The first of them is a pert young miss named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who will be accompanying Ryan on his next round of flights. Hers was the sacking-by-video-conference brainchild that he so objects to. It's not just that it will limit his flying – he has enough of a conscience to realise that the least you can do when downsizing somebody is meet them face to face. Natalie is the sort of go-getter whose life choices appear to have been organised by ruthless box-ticking. Of her last boyfriend she tells Ryan, "He really fit the bill". "The bill?" he replies, alarmed by such pragmatism in one so young.
Perhaps he recognises something of himself in her – after all, his own romantic liaisons have been shaped by his job. Lately his loins have been stirred by Alex (Vera Farmiga), another corporate wanderer who, like himself, doesn't appear to need anyone or anything. They quickly establish a mutual ground of interest, aside from sex: they are both "turned on by elite status", their wallets sleek with membership cards, prestige passes, concierge keys. Theirs is a world of insulated to-ing and fro-ing, and if they can arrange their schedules around a night on the road together, so much the better. Farmiga, who was good in The Departed, and even better as the mother of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is a terrific match for Clooney, as ravishing to the eye and possessed of the same sidelong amusement at the world. They do sauciness like Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep: "I'll bet it's huge," Alex says. "You have no idea," he replies. They're talking about his projected target as an air-miles accumulator, but you can tell she already has his measure.
The film, written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, is consistently entertaining, though it coasts through a long middle and towards the end threatens to take a nose-dive into sentimentality. A subplot involves Ryan surprising everyone, including himself, by showing up at his younger sister's wedding, though it's his older sister Kara (Amy Morton) whose weary air of defeat makes the deeper impression. It is not exactly a joyous reunion of the Bingham clan. "Basically you don't exist to us," Kara tells him, a line that sounds harsher than it is actually spoken, but Ryan still has to take it on the chin. A small chance to redeem himself arises when he (of all people) is tasked with persuading the panicked bridegroom not to scarper – the commitment-phobe winging it as a relationship counsellor. "Everyone needs a co-pilot," is Ryan's best advice, and it's a nice touch of the screenplay to show how even his language is enslaved to air travel.
The warm fuzziness of these scenes suggest that Ryan's next destination is a happy landing, but to its credit the film suddenly pulls away and delivers a bit of a shock. It is, you might say, a very unAmerican conclusion, though however much pathos it elicits there's still a sense that the real tragedy is going on elsewhere. More than a sense: Reitman bookends the film with montages of talking heads reacting to the news that they've been fired, and the rawness of their anguish persuades you that they could be actual victims of job loss – which indeed they are. Ryan Bingham has been knocked sideways, but there's still a job keeping him aloft. For those people hovering above the economy's trap door the view must have seemed rather more precipitous.