Sometimes it seems like one of Hollywood's main goals is to make people without spouses and children feel really bad about themselves. If that sort of thing bothers you, I would recommend passing on Up in the Air, which is as strident about the notion that a life without a family is worthless as any movie I've ever seen. Fortunately, it is also brisk, funny, and not enslaved to genre conventions. Parts of the film, in fact, approach comic brilliance. The reason that the film's message-mongering doesn't grate, I think, is that we really do feel sorry for the protagonist – an obsessive frequent flier who begins to realize that his life is an empty, lonely shell of rationalizations and self-delusions.
In some respects, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) approaches caricature: not only is he wifeless, childless and practically homeless – he has a barren studio in Omaha and spends 320 days a year on the road – but he fires people for a living and occasionally gives motivational speeches urging people to "empty their backpacks" and rid themselves of commitment. But there's a kernel of truth to him, in the sense that there is something compelling, almost romantic about transience. His world of luxury hotels and airline perks – and a hot frequent flier girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) with whom he sleeps with when their paths cross but who asks for nothing more – actually seems kind of cool.
Bingham's nomadic existence is jeopardized by a hotshot newcomer (Anna Kendrick) who promises to revolutionize the termination industry by putting the company's "transition specialists" in cubicles and having them fire people via teleconference. But first, she has to go on the road with Bingham to learn the ropes of telling people they've been let go. It's a hard job, as you might guess: people yell, cry, beg, and threaten suicide. For all his faults, Bingham realizes that this isn't something you can reduce to a science.
The director is Jason Reitman, a hot commodity after Thank You For Smoking and Juno. Up in the Air shows him coming into his own as a comedy director, even as he's still honing his dramatic instincts. The movie has some hearty belly laughs despite ostensibly being serious business. This is thanks in equal measure to Reitman's witty screenplay – he has a particular flair for the insensitive remark casually tossed off – and the performances, which are miraculous. George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, in particular, are a monumental comic pairing. This is one of Clooney's best roles, allowing him to enliven an already sharp screenplay with his second-to-none presence and timing (no one – no one – does a better incredulous reaction shot than Clooney), and Kendrick is a brilliantly uptight foil for him, the Steve Martin to his John Candy. Surprisingly, the stretches during which Up in the Air threatens to become a buddy movie are some of the film's strongest. And Vera Farmiga is eking out a Catherine Keener-esque career of creating painfully real characters without having a great deal to work with.
Up in the Air starts to get bogged down in the third act, when certain developments involving Bingham's sister's wedding start to seem a little too cute, too neatly designed to teach our protagonist the lesson he needs to learn. For a while, the movie seems headed for a depressingly formulaic conclusion wherein our main character figures out What's Important in Life, bolts from whatever he's doing, and chases down the girl of his dreams. But then Reitman rallies again with a strong, ambiguous ending that resists the temptation of the easy payoff. The film is confident in its lesson, but realizes that it may not be so easy for someone like Ryan Bingham to put to use.
This is Reitman's third film, and I've liked them all about the same: recommended with reservations. He's obviously talented, and just as obviously struggling to find his voice. He constantly struggles against the formulas of his plots, adding little touches and pleasures that make it clear he's not slumming. Like Thank You For Smoking and Juno, Up in the Air is problematic and not entirely satisfying, but it has plenty going for it.