The trailers for Up in the Air do their best to suggest that this is a formulaic romantic comedy about two people who initially hate each other but end up falling in love. It isn’t anything of the sort. Nor is it a cynical black comedy like Office Space, as one might guess from the premise. It’s something different, a bit smarter and subtler than either.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for an outplacement firm, and what with the current economy he is very busy flying from city to city to companies that have layoffs scheduled. Mostly his job consists of firing people whose managers are too cowardly to do the job themselves. In between he gives motivational speeches in which he preaches a Zen-like avoidance of attachments and commitments.
He carries on an intermittent airport-hotel affair with a female executive (Vera Farmiga) who travels almost as much as he does, but his primary passion seems to be the American Airlines customer loyalty program, in which he hopes to rack up 10,000,000 miles. (The product placement gets pretty blatant here. I just hope that American Airlines and Hilton Hotels paid for the movie’s entire travel budget.)
Ryan’s comfortable life is threatened by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) a brilliant young wiz kid who has convinced his boss that the company can dispense with its entire travel budget if they just do all the firings via teleconferencing. When he demonstrates that she really doesn’t know much about the art of firing people, he gets assigned to bring her along with him to show her how it’s done.
Ryan may sound like a monster but George Clooney’s performance manages to make him seem rather sympathetic. He feels compassion for the people he fires; he just feels that since they are going to be fired in any case, the only thing he can do for them is conduct the firing in a dignified and professional manner. Natalie isn’t a monster either; she’s just very young and naive, smart but not wise.
There is a lot of rather grim humor in the movie, but the real appeal is in the human story as Ryan and Natalie are forced to examine their lives and decide if this is what they really want.