George Clooney & Vera Farmiga in the movie Up in the Air

For a movie set in a sour economy, "Up in the Air" is very crafty about lobbing to the sweet spots of all concerned.

It is smooth as glass, destined for a big audience and many awards. It is actively impossible to dislike, even when its protagonist is doing nominally dislikable things.

Adapting the Walter Kirn novel, co-writer and director Jason Reitman ran the source material through the de-glib-erizer and handed George Clooney a nice big comfortable leading role as Ryan Bingham, downsizing expert and well-tailored hatchet man for an Omaha firm specializing in delivering bad news to laid-off employees.

Bingham is a man without a city. He spends six weeks out of the year in his unbearably drab apartment. The rest of the time he is flying, or about to. He has little in the way of meaningful personal connections, either to friends, sometime-lovers (a neighbor across the hall, for example) or family. One sister in northern Wisconsin, played by Melanie Lynskey, is getting married; Bingham may go to the wedding or, fulfilling his other sister's low expectations of him, he may not. (Amy Morton is very droll as the other sister.)

In the Kirn book, which was so full of parodic corporate blather it could barely spit out the words "mission statement," the protagonist existed in a realm of satire; in the movie, he has been warmed up. This has been director Reitman's mission so far as an extremely talented and commercially savvy filmmaker. He warms up screenplays (humanizes them, you could also say) so that, in his first and highly auspicious feature, "Thank You For Smoking," a rakish Big Tobacco lobbyist's progress became the stuff of better father/son relations. (That theme was there in the novel, but Reitman foregrounded it.) If Reitman had followed screenwriter Diablo Cody's script directives in his second film, "Juno," the film would've been far more broadly comic and, I suspect, a lot less popular. "Up in the Air" has been shaped for Clooney's prodigious, slightly melancholy charm as a comic leading man. Happily he has worthy sparring partners. Reitman has a genuine instinct for casting.

Vera Farmiga plays Alex, whom Bingham meets in a classically anonymous airport hotel bar one night. They compare notes on rental car firms, loyalty programs, frequent flier miles and quickly realize they're made for each other. The only question is the relationship's expiration date. Farmiga has never been better than she is here. Rarely does she get to do comedy, and she and Clooney give "Up in the Air's" sustained air of engaging disengagement a heartbeat as well as a romantic charge.

The other key character, a tightly wound whiz kid Bingham's forced to mentor, is played by Anna Kendrick, who has a way of spitting out each line as if it were a nail coming out of a nail gun. Her character proposes the Omaha company bring in their "road warriors" and start firing people via iChat. This raises Bingham's hackles and, handily, makes him instantly more sympathetic to the audience. Reitman always seems to have an eye out for such opportunities, mostly in good ways, though at some point in his career, I hope he makes a movie with a little less interest in ensuring the audience's constant, first-class comfort.

Seeing "Up in the Air" earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, its limited ambitions bugged me ("a slickly crafted disappointment" is what I said then). Catching it again this week, I still don't relate to the kvelling, but I see how it could end up with Best Picture of 2009 at the Oscars early next year.

After the mildly exotic wish-fulfillment of "Slumdog Millionaire," Academy voters may have an interest in backing a well-made, ripped-from-the-headlines-but-gently diversion set in what the coasts call "flyover country."

This is a well-polished star vehicle. Its sharpest dialogue has the snap and precision of Reitman's frequent montage sequences, depicting Bingham's airport routines and easy, breezy, tinny life. The state of romantic comedy being what it is, "Up in the Air" looks better every minute, and simply seeing Clooney, Farmiga, Kendrick and their cohorts play the net so gracefully for a couple of hours is satisfying indeed.


MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content).

Running time: 1:48.

Cast: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham); Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran); Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener); Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory); Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham); Danny McBride (Jim Miller); Amy Morton (Kara Bingham); Sam Elliott (Maynard Finch); J.K. Simmons (Bob).

Credits: Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; produced by Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki and Jeffrey Clifford. A Paramount Pictures release.


Up in the Air Movie Review - George Clooney & Vera Farmiga