Loner layoff expert meets his match

George Clooney is a Career Transi- tion Counselor in "Up in the Air."
George Clooney is a Career Transi- tion Counselor in "Up in the Air."
Posted: December 04, 2009

There are frequent fliers, there are high fliers, and then there is Ryan Bingham. He's cheerfully clocked only he knows how many miles over the last year, 322 days flying airline hub to spoke for work. That makes 322 nights comparing the minibars (and maxibabes) at Marriotts and Hiltons. Which leaves him a mere "43 miserable days" in home sweet Omaha.

Ryan (George Clooney) is The Terminator, euphemistically a Career Transition Counselor, the suave bully you call when cowed by the prospect of eliminating excess employees. See Ryan train his buckshot eyes on the target about to be culled. Hear him deliver soothing platitudes about job loss as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Feel his palpable relief as he settles in his first-class seat on the way to the next gig.

For Ryan, happiness is a flotation device beneath the rump. The people he terminates have no such cushion.

And for him, a connection isn't interpersonal, it's the transfer you make at Terminal B.

This he believes - until he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), his female counterpart, and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), his colleague, women who will rock his world, personally and professionally. They are him, only with gal parts. He's both turned on and scared by these mirror images, the rootless careerist without home ties, and the efficiency expert trying to achieve even greater economies of scale.

Up in the Air, Jason Reitman's nimble adaptation of the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, is perfectly tailored to Clooney's melancholy twinkle and purring motormouth. I don't know if it's the best movie of the year, but it's the most utterly enjoyable.

While it may be only Reitman's third feature (after Thank You for Smoking and Juno) the 32-year-old son of producer/director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes) has a firmer command of star and story than many veterans twice his age and experience.

Rather than scripting the reactions of the newly downsized, Reitman filmed the responses of real-life workers recently laid off. Their stinging earfuls are a most eloquent way of showing the human turbulence of corporate cost-cutting.

A satirical account of an economy where the only growth industry is in layoffs, Up in the Air is also a ruefully funny portrait of a culture preoccupied with elite memberships, bonus points, and upgrades - empty status symbols in uneasy times. The scene where Ryan and Alex show each other what's inside their wallets may be one of the funniest pickup sequences ever, but it also speaks to the characters' status anxiety.

Farmiga (The Departed) is, as always, sublime, a human version of the hot-and-cold patch you get to treat a bruised muscle. In this movie, the muscle is Ryan's heart.

Did I mention how great Clooney is? In recent years, he's become the go-to guy for movies about recovering cynics. But never before has he conveyed the extent to which his character's lightness of spirit was a means of allaying fears of the dark.

Ryan may not be admirable, but Clooney makes him relatable. It's his deepest and nakedest performance, one that plays into his public persona as the guy who flies solo and deserves all the award recognition it will get.

His Ryan speaks with velvet-voiced authority. Listen closely and you hear the fraying nerves. What might happen if the man who draws a paycheck from downsizing could himself be downsized? What might happen if inside this lone ranger was a lonely guy hankering to couple up? What might happen if the man flying high above layoffs could be grounded?

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl,"

at http://www.philly.com/


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