Up in the Air boasts a premise so outlandish, in its matter-of-fact way, that it makes Avatar look like a documentary by comparison. Like the Walter Kirn novel on which it’s based, the film has to persuade us that its protagonist, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), enjoys air travel. Not, please note, the experience of visiting various corners of the globe—Ryan rarely leaves the continental U.S., and his destination is invariably just some nondescript office building. No, Up in the Air wants us to believe that Ryan actually digs the flights, the airports, the rental cars, the practical details of living out of a single item of carry-on luggage. Even given that he flies business class and has keys to every airline’s VIP lounge, this is hard to swallow; it’s to director Jason Reitman’s credit that he manages to make the opening montage, which lays it all out, look jazzily appealing. How? By emphasizing rapid motion in an environment that’s all about stasis. The entire film, likewise, amounts to an engaging lie.
Where is Ryan headed 300-plus days per year? He’s a corporate executioner, more or less—someone who’s flown in by craven management to inform employees that they’re being laid off. Ryan handles these frequently explosive encounters with as much synthetic empathy as he can summon, and he’s proud of what he thinks of as his personal touch. So he’s outraged when his boss (Jason Bateman) informs him that new hire and recent college grad Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve had pegged for stardom since her knockout role in a little-seen 2003 film called Camp) has proposed that the company cut expenses by henceforth canning people remotely, via a computer chat link. To demonstrate that Natalie knows nothing about people or life, Ryan drags her out on the road for several weeks, only to find—well, you know. Himself.
Some of you may remember this basic idea from 20-odd years back, when Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist, about a travel writer contentedly cut off from ordinary human contact, was made into an Oscar-winning movie. But where that film relied on Geena Davis as a kooky life force, Up in the Air divides its energy more or less equally among Ryan, Natalie and Alex (Vera Farmiga), another mileage whore with whom Ryan has a running no-strings dalliance. All three actors are superb, and Reitman, as in his two previous films (Juno and Thank You for Smoking), keeps things moving at a pleasurable clip, punching up the witty dialogue and doing his best to distract you from the narrative’s rather soggy predictability. Though he can’t do much about the old chestnut in which our hero takes the podium in Act 3 but finds he can’t deliver his cynical speech because, gosh darn it, he just doesn’t believe that guff anymore.
In short, Up in the Air resembles most reasonably good Hollywood movies: eminently diverting, so long as you don’t expect anything remotely approaching the real world. And yet, because the story—which, recall, was originally written years before the current recession—involves people losing their jobs, this shallow, moderately entertaining picture has been freighted with all kinds of flimsy Significance, to the point where it’s considered one of the front-runners for this year’s Best Picture Oscar race. Reitman, buying into his own bullshit, even went so far as to hire non-actors who had recently been laid off, having them speak directly to the camera about their struggle to retain their dignity. Given the film’s fundamental glibness and utter disconnect from genuine lived experience, the attempt at social import comes off as cheap opportunism. See the movie for snappy patter and Clooney’s charisma; don’t expect to feel anybody’s actual pain.