Up in the Air | Flying high with George Clooney… until sharp satire brings us down to earth

Up in the Air - George Clooney plays air-mile collecting corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham

George Clooney’s fabled suavity and charm makes him perfect for the equivocal hero of Juno director Jason Reitman’s sardonic comedy drama Up in the Air. If he weren’t so damned charismatic, the film would never take off. As it is, such is Clooney’s magnetism that we’re quite happy to have his Ryan Bingham as our travelling companion.

And that’s despite the fact that Ryan is the figure we all dread in these recessionary times – a corporate axe-man who fires people for a living. He’s a management consultant who criss-crosses the USA telling workers they’ve been laid off by their companies. As he puts it himself in his droll voice-over, he’s there because bosses “don’t have the balls to sack their own employees.”

Ryan is on the road, or rather, up in the air, for more than 300 days a year. Most people would find such a life intolerable, but for him it’s bliss. As he flies from one airport hub to the next, his passage eased by his elite frequent flier status, he’s in heaven. “All the things you probably hate about travelling,” he explains. “The recycled air. The artificial lighting. The digital juice dispensers and mini pizzas stacked to their heat lamps are the warm reminders that I am home.”

How so? Well, he has a sideline as a motivational speaker, which gives him the opportunity to expound the personal philosophy that underpins his existence – freedom from all the ties and responsibilities that pin people down. He calls it ‘What’s in your backpack?’

Up in the Air - George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham may have found his soul mate in Vera Farmiga’s Alex Goran

Ryan is happily cruising along en route to his lifetime goal of 10 million frequent flier miles, and he may even have found a soul mate in Vera Farmiga’s fellow traveller Alex Goran, who becomes his occasional lover when their schedules coincide. (“Think of me as you, but with a vagina,’ she tells him.)

Then up pops eager young efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who wants to persuade Ryan’s company that it can slash its huge travel bill by sacking people via webcam.  Desperate not to be grounded, Ryan persuades his boss (Jason Bateman) to let him take Natalie with him on his next trip to prove the importance of the personal touch in their line of work.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s own family – notably his soon-to-be-married sister (Melanie Lynskey) – is also intruding on his no-strings life. Is his backpack about to become weightier?

Up in the Air - George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham with sisters Julie (Melanie Lynskey) & Kara (Amy Morton)

Up in the Air is as slick and polished as its protagonist: the script is sharp, the editing snappy and the performances perfectly pitched. Yet whereas the closer you look at Clooney’s Ryan the more you uncover his moral vacancy, when you dig more deeply into the film itself you discover its heart.

Take the opening credits: a crisply edited montage of an airline passenger’s view of cloudscapes, landscapes and cityscapes, all set to jauntily uplifting music. This could be Ryan’s perspective, with us alongside him in business class. The song itself, however, undercuts this privileged position, if you listen more closely – it’s a funky new version by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings of Woody Guthrie’s classic anthem of working-class resistance, ‘This Land is Your Land’.

Later on, Reitman provides us with some more gritty reality to rub against the film’s surface gloss. The people we see getting fired by Ryan are ordinary Americans who have lost their jobs (with one or two exceptions played by well-known character actor such as JK Simmons) and they give vent to their true feelings of being made redundant, from hurt and shame to bitterness and anger.

It’s the film’s three stars, however, who will be getting the attention, I suspect, when it comes round to Oscar nomination time. Deservedly so.

Up in the Air - Anna Kendrick plays eager efficiency expert Natalie Keener

Kendrick made a big impression on me a few years back with her caustic rendition of Sondheim’s The Ladies Who Lunch in the offbeat teen musical Camp and she’s even better here as the tightly wound Natalie.

Farmiga, last seen as the mother in Orphan, exudes sultry self-possession as Alex, and makes a worthy foil for Clooney’s Ryan. Their first encounter is priceless: an airport lounge pickup in which they briskly assess each other’s elite status, their trading of high-end loyalty cards a kind of foreplay.

Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan, provides the perfect showcase for the performances, his assured touch confirming my suspicion that the success of Juno was as much down to his direction as it was the product of Diablo Cody’s sassy script. (For more support of this view: take a look at the mess that was the Cody-scripted Jennifer’s Body.)

But it’s Clooney, sleekly turned out in Brooks Brothers suits and tailored shirts, who holds everything together, nailing every nuance and inflection in the eminently quotable script. So quotable, indeed, that I can’t resist one last speech. Here’s what Ryan says to Natalie of the soothing touch that’s required when laying people off.

“We are here to make limbo tolerable. To ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to where hope is dimly visible. Then stop the boat, shove them in the water, and make them swim.”

On general release from 15th January.