People I meet always ask if there is something wonderful to see at the movies. Now I have an answer. See Up in the Air, a transporting comedy from slump-resistant director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) that jet-fuels the Oscar race, rattles with romantic turbulence, rumbles with the terror of living in acratering economy and takes a never-better George Clooney on the ride of his acting life.
Clooney plays career-transition counselor Ryan Bingham. His job is to fire you from your job. Ryan has a sterile apartment in Omaha, Nebraska. But he's rarely there. For 322 days a year, he's in and out of airports,stopping only to whack work slaves whose bosses don't have the stomach for it. Ryan looks you in the eye, shakes your hand and claims being canned isn't a tragedy, it's an opportunity.
Up in the Air is a defining movie for these perilous times. The firing scenes only hurt when you laugh, which is constantly. The reactions of Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons when the ax falls are priceless. But Reitman also uses nonactors, playing versions of their own stories, who help make this the best and boldest American comedy of the year.
All praise to Clooney, who uses humor as a portal to a deeper, darker place. This is star acting of a high order, and Clooney makes it look easy, which is why he's as good as it gets. Clooney's eyes reflect Ryan's avidity for hotels, cars and reaching his goal of 10 million frequent-flier miles. Ryan even lectures about keeping your life down to what you can fit in one backpack. This sprinting champ of airport check-in can measure his physical and emotional baggage in ounces. As he says, "The slower we move, the faster we die."
So far, the film follows the map laid out by Walter Kirn in his 2001 novel,an a stringent song of the open road. But in working with co-scripter Sheldon Turner in the years since, Reitman has let hard times and his own transition from single life to marriage and fatherhood seep into the script. The change starts by putting two women into Ryan's path.
Alex (Vera Farmiga) is an executive who shares his travel routine and his jones for elite status. "I'm you with a vagina," she teases. They jump into bed and a close call with commitment. Whether her films are indie (Down to the Bone) or mainstream (The Departed), Farmiga is a major talent. But this is her breakout performance. She's combustibly smart and sexy, and her sparring with Clooney is classic.
Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who dismisses Ryan as "old," is a 23-year-oldfirebrand out of Cornell hired by Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman, making slime so tasty you hunger for more) to lay off workers more efficiently: by computer. That's when Ryan takes her on the road to prove her wrong. Kendrick (Bella's perky bud in the Twilight series) is a revelation. Watching her lose her fiance and her tightly held control is hilarious and heartbreaking.
Ryan travels light, but Reitman's movie aches for human connection. In amajor shift, Ryan breaks his routine to attend the wedding of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) to a reluctant groom (Danny McBride). It's Ryan who sells him on marriage without really selling himself on the message that "Everyone needs a co-pilot." The movie is rightly ambiguous about what Ryan needs. Reitman is incisively funny at showing the work force getting its options squeezed. But no way is he kidding. And no way does this movie — his finest yet — take the easy way out. One-word reaction: bravo.