George Clooney plays a man who has perfected a dubious but widely applicable skill in Up In The Air: He fires people. But firing is a harsh word, so he doesn’t use it unless he has to. Instead, he informs employees their jobs will no longer be available. Then he deflects the abuse they heap on him, consoles them as they break down, hands them an informational packet, and leaves them forever. Somewhere along the line, he also offers some advice that makes their dismissals sound like the beginning of a glorious new tomorrow. It’s canned, but it sounds sincere coming from Clooney, and not just because he offers it with an unblinking gaze that suggests utter conviction. He really believes it. Or at the very least, he believes in a life without attachments, in which he drifts from airport lounge to hotel room while racking up an inhuman number of frequent-flier miles and returning to his sparsely appointed Omaha apartment only when need requires. “Living is moving,” Clooney tells a group at one of his occasional motivational lectures. He subscribes to the converse logic as well: Anything or anyone that slows him, weighs his existence down with death.
Clooney is so charming in Up In The Air that it’s easy to believe he might be right, and the film works best when it keeps the abyss over which he glides in the corner of the screen, while challenges to his preferred way of life present themselves in the form of three women. One is a fellow perpetual traveler (Vera Farmiga) with whom he forms an instant bond, using shared experiences and a glowing sexual chemistry. Another is his sister (Melanie Lynskey), whose impending marriage forces him to think about his family for the first time in years. Then there’s a fresh-out-of-college co-worker (Anna Kendrick) who’s wowed their boss (Jason Bateman) by introducing some video-conferencing techniques that would make travel unnecessary. To train her, and hopefully prove her wrong, Clooney takes her on the road.
Jason Reitman’s direction nicely translates the seductive appeal of sterile public places while letting the assured performances do much of the work. The film isn’t shy about laying out its themes, but Clooney’s understated work at the center lends them added complexity. Sure, he’s missing out on what a lot of people value in life, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Until, inevitably, he does. Yet what Up In The Air lacks in surprises—apart from an elusive final scene—it compensates for by conveying the pleasures of living from landing to landing, and the terror of floating away.