Seated in an exit row

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards I For The New Mex­i­can

Up in the Air, re­ces­sion com­edy-drama, rated R, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 3.5 chiles

When you spend 322 days a year in the air, in air­ports, and in ho­tel rooms and bars, and only “43 mis­er­able days at home,” you travel light. You don’t tote around much bag­gage, phys­i­cal or emo­tional. And for Ryan Bing­ham (Ge­orge Clooney), that’s just about heaven on earth— or 40,000 feet above it. “To know me is to fly with me,” he says, lean­ing back con­tent­edly in his busi­ness­class seat. “This is where I live.”

He knows his way around ev­ery air­port in the coun­try, and he has pro­fil­ing down to a sci­ence. “Get in line be­hind an Asian,” he coun­sels in a voice-over. “They pack light and wear slip-on shoes. Stay away from old peo­ple, and es­pe­cially fam­i­lies with young kids.” Lis­ten to the man; the time you’ll save in air­port se­cu­rity alone will be more than worth the price of ad­mis­sion.

In Ryan’s line of work, emo­tional com­mit­ment is a lux­ury he can’t af­ford and frankly doesn’t see much use for. He’s a ca­reer­tran­si­tion spe­cial­ist— in other words, he fires peo­ple for a liv­ing. Down­siz­ing cor­po­ra­tions hire Ryan, through his firm, to do their dirty work for them. He flies in to the city where the ax work is to be done, sets him­self up in a cor­po­rate con­fer­ence room, and as em­ploy­ees file in, he drops his blade across their pro­fes­sional necks with a pol­ish that al­most seems sooth­ing. “Any­body who

ever built an em­pire or changed the world sat where you are now,” is his re­as­sur­ing pat­ter to the doomed.

The peo­ple you’ll see at the beginning of this movie get­ting the news that they’re sud­denly un­em­ployed aren’t ac­tors. They’re real peo­ple who have lost their jobs, in­vited by writer-di­rec­tor Ja­son Reit­man to re-cre­ate their re­ac­tions to be­ing laid off. Reit­man is a tal­ented sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion film­maker (his fa­ther is Ivan Reit­man, di­rec­tor of Ghost­busters and Dave) whose pre­vi­ous fea­tures are the ex­cel­lent Thank You for Smok­ing and Juno. This may be his best work yet.

Two women en­ter Ryan’s life early in the film, com­pli­cat­ing his care­free ex­is­tence. The first is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a trav­el­ing woman with a life­style so like Ryan’s that it’s syn­chronic­ity at first sight. They meet in a ho­tel bar, and the erotic dance of se­duc­tion they go through, com­par­ing credit cards, club cards, and fre­quent­flyer miles, is one of the smartest, fun­ni­est, and most orig­i­nal pickup scenes ever shot. Farmiga ( The De­parted) and Clooney are a treat to­gether. They keep the wit and chem­istry bounc­ing back and forth like a mod­ern-day Tracy and Hep­burn, if you can pic­ture Hep­burn sashay­ing across a ho­tel room wear­ing noth­ing but a man’s neck­tie looped around her waist.

The sec­ond woman is Natalie (Anna Ken­drick of Twi­light), an am­bi­tious young tyro hired by Ryan’s boss (Ja­son Bate­man) to stream­line the fir­ing busi­ness. Natalie is a pain in the ass, a grad­school whiz with a ma­jor in heart­less­ness who has fig­ured out that you can fire a lot more peo­ple for a lot less money if you do it via tele­con­fer­enc­ing. Ryan is or­dered to take Natalie with him on a last round of face-to-face lay­offs so she can study the process and fine­tune her pro­posal. This un­easy part­ner­ship is al­most as much fun to watch as the other one, and Ken­drick eas­ily holds her own with the older pros.

The un­der­ly­ing is­sue here, com­ing as it does at a time of dou­bledigit un­em­ploy­ment, is hardly the stuff of com­edy, and Reit­man is adept at mak­ing sure we never lose sight of the cruel hu­man cost of the lay­off process. “We take peo­ple at their most frag­ile, and we set them adrift,” Ryan ob­serves with clear-eyed can­dor. He and Natalie ar­rive at their ren­dezvous with the soon-to-be-su­per­flu­ous with the ter­mi­nal ef­fi­ciency of the uni­formed har­bin­gers of death in The Mes­sen­ger.

Like the De­pres­sion-era come­dies of As­taire and Rogers, Up in the Air has the sur­face gloss of a pol­ished dance floor. It’s got a few things to say about dig­nity and un­em­ploy­ment and fam­ily and com­mit­ment, but it never lets them trump the es­capist en­ter­tain­ment on which this pic­ture trav­els. The screen­play, by Reit­man and Shel­don Turner, up­datesWal­ter Kirn’s 2001 novel with 2009 rel­e­vance and smart, funny di­a­logue.

Clooney is the avatar of per­fectly groomed movie star­dom, and he plays Ryan’s hard-shell smooth­ness so im­pec­ca­bly that you al­most hate to see signs of hu­man feel­ing and the siren song of emo­tional en­gage­ment be­gin to in­fect his blithe spirit. Ken­drick de­liv­ers Natalie’s hard-drive heart and un­tem­pered cer­tainty about life with a vir­tu­oso flair, and her in­evitable melt­down is one of the movie’s in­spired comic scenes. And Farmiga, much ap­pre­ci­ated in the in­dus­try but not un­til now by the pub­lic, fi­nally gets her break­out role and nails it with her in­car­na­tion of a man’s moral com­pass in a woman’s body.

There’s a bit of dis­ap­point­ment to the fi­nal act, in­clud­ing a sur­prise twist that seems a bit of a cheat, not en­tirely jus­ti­fied by what had gone be­fore. But for most of the way, Up in the Air is in­tel­li­gent, high­fly­ing comic en­ter­tain­ment, and it makes a smooth land­ing.

Fir­ing squad: Anna Ken­drick and Ge­orge Clooney

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