Jason Reitman has one of the more casually confident senses of tone of any young mainstream director working right now. In but three features, he's managed to view seemingly thorny subjects—including the tobacco lobby in 2005's Thank You for Smoking and teen pregnancy in 2007's Juno—through a broad serio-comedic lens without stripping his characters of their decency. In fact, that he lets his characters realize tensions that exist because of a sense of decency is often what gives them a recognizably fallible humanity. In Up in the Air, he uses that deft touch in exploring the compartmentalized life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a for-hire corporate hatchetman. Ryan is the sharp-dressed man who bosses hire when they have to fire somebody—or downsize an entire department—and don't have the spine to do it themselves. Ryan is extremely competent at his job, and he loves it.
In fact, he loves everything about it. He loves jetting around the country at 30,000 feet. He loves the anonymous, antiseptic homogeneity of preferred customer waiting areas, business hotels, chain-restaurant fine dining, airport bestsellers, minibar cocktails, and prepackaged snacks. He loves the continuously piped-in news programs and USA Today. He loves the simplicity of living out of his suitcase. He loves the corporate-membership cards and frequent-flier miles—so much so that he's pining to rack up 10 million miles, a rare feat. And while he doesn't love firing people, he does see himself as having a responsibility: He's meeting people at the worst moment of their lives, and it's his duty to make that transition as painless as possible.
Liberally adapted from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, Air serendipitously arrives in theaters at a time when gainful employment may be even more valued than it was during the dot-com bust at the early part of this decade. And from the very beginning, Reitman dives straight into the face slap of job termination, opening with a montage of people being laid off and their reactions. It's a somewhat cheeky way of introducing Ryan, but it wisely never plays the process for cheap laughs or even cheaper pity. Plus, it makes one fact crystal clear from the very beginning: Ryan Bingham is basically a soulless douchebag.
Credit Reitman for recognizing the superficiality of Clooney's onscreen charm, and credit Clooney for allowing his stardom to be so thoroughly exploited. Ryan thinks he's as happy as any man can be, a situation a young corporate whippersnapper at his Omaha-based employer threatens with her business strategy. Ivy Leaguer Natalie Keener (a superb Anna Kendrick) has developed a way for "termination facilitators" to do their job via remote video, eliminating the need to crisscross the country in person. Ryan argues with his boss (Jason Bateman) that it won't work, that there are aspects of the job that require human interaction that Natalie doesn't know about. So Ryan gets taxed with bringing Natalie along for practical on-the-job training, during which time they each learn more about their chosen profession.
That sounds hokey, and parts of it unabashedly are, but Reitman keeps the pace screwball tight while never treading lightly on what they do. Natalie's first real-life termination naturally isn't as easy as a scripted simulation, and the beta test of her video interface is downright grueling. Better/worse, Reitman dots their circuitous journey across America's workplaces with image after image of mundane corporate failure—entire office floors with only a few workstations and employees, a large corner office overfilled with unneeded rolling chairs—that become a depressing visual haiku.
And that element may be what keeps the movie from feeling cynically opportunistic, for as breezy as it often feels, it's also unsentimentally depressing. It's only by seeing his job through Natalie's eyes that Ryan recognizes a gaping void in his life that he's tried to fill with 10 million frequent-flier miles—think about that, the equivalent of flying the roughly 2,400 air miles from New York to Los Angeles 416 times. He tries to open himself up—to fellow itinerant corporate worker Alex (Vera Farmiga), who he invites to his estranged sister's wedding—but Air, refreshingly, doesn't reward him so easily. Reitman makes the curious choice to let his lead character change while his situation doesn't, and leaves Ryan comfortable at cruising altitude, but with a view from business class that will never be the same.