It's about Ryan Bingham, who is the kind of guy nobody wants to meet. His job is firing people: an odd specialty, but one that he thinks he's pretty good at. It's the one job, ironically, that's probably always in demand. The worse the economy is for everybody else, the better business is for Ryan (George Clooney) and the company for which he works.
So what kind of guy spend his days traveling around the country firing people he's never met, before flying off to another city to fire even more people? An efficient guy who loves to fly, and who travels light. He takes great pride in his lack of baggage - the literal kind and the emotional kind. He's even a motivational speaker on the topic of getting rid of all the baggage that weighs people down. His audience is made up of the sort of people he'll probably be firing the next time he sees them.
So what kind of hero is that? A guy who destroys people for a living, then moves on before the blood dries. A guy who avoids emotional attachments and long-term relationships. If he had been played by anyone other than George Clooney, he might have been downright unlikable - a smooth, polished predator of the sort we're used to seeing in movies about corporate scoundrels.
But Ryan is no scoundrel. An opportunist? Perhaps; but, as portrayed by Clooney, he's a high-flier who senses that he's slowly losing altitude. This is Clooney at his best, and he's really, really good in Up in the Air. Ryan is charming and self-assured, but also smart enough to know that his Platinum Card, business class, VIP lounge, hedonistic lifestyle is financed with little bits of his soul, and that he's about to be underwater on the mortgage.
Ryan's goal in life is to rack up ten million air miles, an accomplishment achieved by an elite few. That lofty aspiration is threatened when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) talks the boss (Jason Bateman) into a more efficient way of firing people: via webcam. Ryan may spend his days at arm's length from humanity, but he appreciates the value of being face-to-face with another human when the axe falls - even when that fellow human is someone as emotionally distant and detached as he is.
Besides, his true home is the transitional spaces - airports, airplanes, hotels - that most of us occupy only long enough to get to somewhere else, preferably home. Ryan doesn't care where he's going, as long as he keeps moving. He stops long enough to meet Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another road warrior with whom he shares a passion for casual sex and racking up frequent-flier miles. Romantic complications - involving Ryan's sister and her impending nuptials - disturb Ryan's suddenly perturbable equilibrium. Ryan's a master at letting go; what does he know about hanging on?
Up in the Air has a really terrific script, and dialogue that snaps, crackles and waxes pop-philosophical. The screenplay by Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman is based on Walter Kim's novel, and it's a grownup drama that really burrows into one of the chief anxieties of the day - the loss of a job, of an identity, of a way of life and sense of purpose - in a way that feels true to the very real tragedy that plays out in workplaces every day. But it's also a surprising, stylish and snappy romantic comedy, in which love and disappointment, attachment and detachment get all tangled up when simple, uncomplicated relationships turn unexpectedly complicated.
Up in the Air is smart and edgy and thoughtful, and Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) keeps the oddly matched romance, tragedy and comedy and the personal, professional and economical downturns nicely meshed. But for all the ways in which Ryan Bingham embodies the complications and contradictions of modern love and work, the movie doesn't lose sight of the genuine tragedy that keeps a man like him up in the air.