The quick pace and jaunty style of “Up in the Air” help to mitigate its rather preposterous story, about a Zen travel warrior who finds comfort but not a home, and sex but not love, while perpetually roaming the skies and luxury hotels in a life of never-ending business travel. Until circumstances force him to question it all, of course. “Up in the Air,” get it?
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a professional hatchet man whose somewhat incredible employer is a layoff contractor that sends him around the country to fire people at other companies. Business is booming, and Ryan has come to enjoy endlessly racking up travel perks, including his coveted frequent flier miles, which he displays with pride to fellow travel vet Alex (Vera Farmiga) before bedding her and negotiating their next liaison over computer screens. Just look, the movie tells us, at how frenzied and impersonal our lives have become.
Ryan's glib contentment signals he's about to take a fall, which comes in the form of glib naA_vetAc: Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young, self-assured new hire who signals Ryan's doom by proposing that the company conduct all its business over webcam. It took an Internet-savvy Ivy League grad, we are told, to come up with this. Ryan is ordered to take Natalie on the road to show her the business, where she inevitably receives her own life lessons.
Written and directed by Jason Reitman (“Juno”), “Up in the Air” wants to be “About Schmidt” in the skies, but with too many storytelling shortcuts and too much sitcom dialogue. It contains a good bit of the unnatural and prepackaged for a movie about an unnatural, prepackaged life, though Ryan's relationship with Alex, which grows increasingly, uncomfortably realistic, is a sustained grace note that ends the picture admirably. It's difficult to watch layoffs played for laughs, however, and not think the movie is a little like Natalie before her comeuppance: too smug and dismissive for its own good. (R) 109 min. HHHII