The scene replays itself, only slightly altered, in Reitman's very loose and awfully affecting adaptation of Walter Kirn's 2001 novel about Ryan Bingham, who, when he's not busy traversing the flyover states delivering pink slips, delivers motivational speeches in hotel ballrooms about emptying out one's metaphoric backpack. "How much does your life weigh?" he asks his audience, before ticking off all the "stuff" (from shelves full of knickknacks to family) that turns one's life into a parade of "negotiations, arguments, secrets, compromises." Ditch it all, he demands; live unencumbered, without commitment, without companionship, without love.
Only, just maybe, the preacher is still capable of conversion. He'll speak from the heart...just, just, wait a minute, it's around here somewhere. This is no spoiler; pat resolutions are not Up in the Air's endgame.
"All the things you probably hate about traveling," Ryan says in voiceover, "are warm reminders I am home." And so begins his tale, in which contemporary corporate woe is commingled with old-fashioned movie-star romance, is laced with sincerity and smarts till it adds up to something pretty special. We play the passengers, stuck next to Ryan on a plane, the part-time intimates to whom he smugly narrates his life story. And through Ryan, Reitman has found his voice — somewhere between the satirist he aspired to be with Thank You for Smoking and the humanist on display in Juno.
Up in the Air begins as a dark joke in which the unencumbered man sees himself not as the firing squad, but as a liberator come to rescue the self-exiled from their cubicle cells. He doesn't hurt; he heals. And, even better, he does so in a different city every day: Ryan flies to a strange town 322 days out of the year to sleep in a strange hotel, walk into a strange office, hand strangers their fate, offer them canned condolences that come out at least sounding sincere, then hustle to a strange airport to begin the ritual anew — all to reach the personal goal of 10 million miles flown for no other reason than "I'd be the seventh person to do it," he explains. "More people have walked on the moon." (Ryan's actual home is a barren apartment in Omaha, Nebraska — Alexander Payne should sue.)
Then the women board, one by one, till Ryan is crowded out of his first-class narcissism. First, there is Alex (Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares a one-nighter in a Dallas-Fort Worth International hotel; they bond over their obsession with frequent-flier bonuses and rental-car company service. She's his kinda gal: a part-time lover who'll commit only as far as the next connecting flight will take her. Then there's Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the cocky Cornell grad who threatens to ruin Ryan's life altogether: She has convinced the boss (Jason Bateman) that it's possible to fire remotely, over an Internet connection. So Ryan is tasked with training Natalie — showing her how it feels to ruin someone's life at close range. And then there's Ryan's sister, Julie (Melanie Lynskey), whose pending wedding brings with it the kind of baggage that cannot be checked at the counter.
Where do they all fit in? And can they? It's clear that Ryan's in store for some kind of emotional transformation — that's why studios make movies like Up in the Air — but it's so elegantly played that you'll actually believe it. There's also a reason studios cast George Clooney. If Steven Soderbergh taught Clooney how to act in Out of Sight, then Reitman has taught him how to stop acting. This is the most vulnerable, the most playful, the most human performance of his career. Reitman's as much the softie as the Coens are cynics — and it turns out Clooney thrives with the former.
Nothing enormous happens in Up in the Air — no great tragedy, no big melodrama. Just the average pain suffered by mortals who, whether in the sky or on land, are looking for firmer ground.