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Movie Review

Up in the Air

Frequent flier smiles: As he travels to downsize, Clooney finds romance ‘Up in the Air’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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Ryan Bingham, the protagonist of Jason Reitman’s warm, smoothly made comedy “Up in the Air,’’ is another of George Clooney’s playboy loners. They live inside a membrane of narcissism until some force - be it love or justice - attempts to break in.

In “Up in the Air,’’ the membrane is punctured early. Ryan works for a consulting firm that companies hire to reduce their staff. The firm is thinking of cutting back itself. Ryan’s boss - played by Jason Bateman, doing unctuous as only he can, like a 21st-century Dabney Coleman - has brought in a sharp young woman named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) to slash the company’s travel budget by 85 percent. With her giant ponytail, power suits, and ludicrous lexicon (“glocal’’ is her term for “global’’ and “local’’), she’s like a corporate warrior sent from a business-school hatchery. Even her toothy smile is a kind of occupational armor.

Natalie’s big idea is to fire people over video chats, so the consulting staff rarely has to leave its home base in Omaha. The announcement floors Ryan. Worse, he’s been instructed to take this high-efficiency robot on the road with him. Sitting at a meeting with a dozen or so co-workers, he looks sick. We feel his pain. Very liberally adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, the movie presents the entire corporate travel galaxy (Kirn called it Airworld) as a rarefied resort.

Ryan travels the way Roger Federer plays tennis. “To know me is to fly with me,’’ he tells us. The object of Ryan’s desire is not a woman (those are among the perks). He’s in pursuit of 10 million frequent flier miles on American Airlines.

At its best, “Up in the Air’’ invents new realms for old Hollywood sophistication. The sequined cocktail festivities and crack banter are now happening in the Admirals Club lounge and at corporate blowouts where everyone parties while wearing a name badge. And Reitman’s team captures it all expertly: Editor Dana E. Glauberman makes shockingly sleek work of packing and wielding roller bags, while cinematographer Eric Steelberg sexes up America’s hotel bars.

This wholly artificial world exists on the once-bloated underbelly of the dot-com bubble. In a way, it even predicts the post-apocalyptic space colonies of “WALL-E.’’ But in this lousy economy, it all feels glamorous. And never more so than when Clooney spies Vera Farmiga nursing a drink at an airport bar.

Farmiga plays Alex - Venus Williams to his Federer. Alex is unattached and equally horny, for both sex and the perks of business travel. In one of the most comically romantic movie exchanges I’ve seen in a long time, they turn each other on with the emblems of their corporate loyalty (Avis and Budget and Hertz, oh my). These two don’t know the language of love. Ryan and Alex speak Expedia (“They’ve got multiples at SDF. You think you could push?’’).

For the first time since Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Intolerable Cruelty,’’ Clooney has a woman who equals him not only in wattage but in weight class. Farmiga exists somewhere between movie star and character actor. Ultimately, she’s neither and both at the same time. Yet her confident handling of a far more famous costar - like he’s just another suit - is an inspired approach.

Clooney is good in a more paternal way with Kendrick, currently a wanted woman for stealing scenes as a motormouth in the second “Twilight’’ movie. She should be under arrest for doing the same here. Her breathless, know-it-all style is something new for the movies: the ingénue as MBA.

When Ryan and Alex wind up in bed together - or near it (“I like how you burrito’ed me in the sofa cushions,’’ she says) - Ryan, who’s done this sort of thing before, wonders if they’ve moved too fast. She tells him: “We’re two people who get turned on by elite status. I think cheap is our starting point.’’ Her reply would bring a tear to Ben Hecht’s eye. It almost does the same to Ryan.

At this point, “Up in the Air’’ becomes harder for Reitman to manage. The movie’s sharp edges become ever so slightly dulled by the sentimental banalities of family ties. Both Natalie, whose boyfriend has just dumped her, and Ryan’s unhappily married older sister (Amy Morton, wonderfully blunt) remind him that he needs to grow up and settle down. He’s been instructed to come home to chilly Wisconsin for the wedding of his younger sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), who’s never seen the world but would like to.

As Ryan makes his way toward the wedding, it becomes clear that “Up in the Air’’ is actually several good movies - a workplace comedy, romantic comedy, and family comedy - seated on the same flight in the same aisle. They all feel forced together. The montages of unemployed men and women discussing their professional worth are touching, but they feel a touch apologetic, too, as if the movie has to atone for the fun it’s been having.

The movie has traces of the same sitcom glibness that trivialized Reitman’s “Juno’’ and parts of his “Thank You for Smoking.’’ A film about the unemployed and the man who lays them off should leave you angrier than this one does. The comic paranoia in Kirn’s novel easily lends itself to dark satire. Reitman’s adaptation, with Sheldon Turner, swaps alienation for a champagne fizz.

I could watch Clooney and Farmiga burrito each other all day. I could listen to Alex give Natalie perceptive relationship advice, too. But in the real world, the ordinary people and their low-flying lives, devoid of perquisites, are at odds with the alluring aquariums the movie has made of those airports, planes, hotels, and private boat parties.

Standing in the Wisconsin snow, Ryan is a fish out of water, flopping for a purpose. The perverse achievement of “Up in the Air’’ is that we ache for him to be scooped up and restored to the fantasy of his natural corporate habitat.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

UP IN THE AIR Directed by: Jason Reitman

Written by: Reitman and Sheldon Turner, adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Bateman

At: Boston Common

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (language and some sexual content)

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