Frequent Flyer Smiles: Clooney relishes his life in transit.

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“This is one of the worst times on record for America,” a corporate-downsizing exec says to his underlings in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air. “This is our moment!” It’s a line played for laughs, but the reality of our country’s recent economic plunge lends gravitas to the writer-director’s third film, one that he began adapting from a Walter Kirn novel seven years ago but tweaked significantly when it became clear that a straight satire about a man who fires people for a living might not play well in 2009. That man is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), and the story is mostly his. Ryan spends nearly his entire year traveling, hopping from company to company in his position as a “career-transition counselor,” and he likes it that way. He’s got no family, no commitments, and very few of the material things that, in his side job as a motivational speaker, he claims will slow you down like a backpack of bricks. Ryan loves airports and hotels and dreads obligations such as his sister’s upcoming wedding and the “43 miserable days” a year he’s grounded in his spartan apartment. When he meets an attractive, like-minded frequent flier, Alex (Vera Farmiga), he’s smitten—she’s hot and aggressive, yes, but also is happy to maintain a meet-up-in-Tulsa relationship. As Alex tells him, “Think of me as you with a vagina.” Ryan turns pale when a fresh-out-of-college efficiency expert, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), sells his company on the concept of going “glocal.” With the technology available, she says in a presentation, why should the company waste money on plane tickets and meal expenses, when the about-to-be-unemployed can hear gibberish such as “Your position is no longer available” just as easily via Web cam? Ryan is, of course, primarily concerned about the potential cramp in his lifestyle. But he also firmly believes that his duties can’t be responsibly executed remotely. So he takes Natalie with him to watch and eventually dole out a few firings herself, experiences that crack her all-business demeanor and prove that company boilerplate doesn’t cut it when, say, the person losing her job says her next move will be jumping off a bridge. Reitman, whose previous features include Thank You for Smoking and Juno, once again delivers an assured and layered film that’s neither drama nor comedy. The director sought recently fired, nonprofessional actors to re-create their terminations, and the result is always gut-wrenching. (Imagine a 57-year-old man not only being fired over the computer by someone who looks like she’s 12, but weeping on top of that.) But the real achievement of Up in the Air is even more impressive: It’s textured without feeling weighty, serious without harshing Clooney’s magnetic and infectious buzz. He easily slips on his go-to persona of the charming if vulnerable rogue, and his character is the source of a lot of humor before things get too thinky. (On choosing an airport-security line: “I’ve never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes.”) Clooney and Farmiga also supply plenty of crackle: Their first conversation is so snappy and flirty it’s practically verbal sex, and their subsequent encounters only add intimacy to the heat. A melancholy, guitar-plucking soundtrack further twists your insides, in contrast with film’s clean, symmetrical look. Reitman’s one misstep? A scene—swear to God—of a desperate run through an airport. It’s the beyond-cliché of so many terrible romantic comedies. But Up in the Air is in another stratosphere from those films, nearly rendering it an amusing, ironic wink.