Ten years ago, at the end of a previous decade, a movie emerged searching for Oscar gold. It featured a charismatic lead actor (Kevin Spacey) in his juiciest starring role and seemed to tap into a complacent national mood, something its title (American Beauty) wouldn't let you forget.
Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) and starring George Clooney, is essentially American Beauty for a different time, attempting to tap into a more restless, anxious national mood. Like its precursor, Up in the Air is glib, smooth, fabulously entertaining in its best scenes and strives for a resonance it doesn't quite achieve. Even the protagonists' names are similar: Spacey's Lester Burnham and Clooney's Ryan Bingham.
The differences, of course, are instructive: Set in a time of relative plenty, Beauty featured a protagonist who had it "all" — wife, kid, nice big house, good job — and yearned to throw it away.
Throwing it all away — well, except for the good job — is what Bingham preaches as a part-time motivational speaker, where he touts freedom from attachments: "Some animals were meant to carry each other," Bingham announces at airport and hotel conference rooms around the country. "[But] we are not swans, we're sharks."
Bingham practices what he preaches: He has a barren studio apartment in Omaha that he sees only a few weeks a year. He really lives on the road, where he travels around the country as a corporate layoff specialist, firing employees for bosses who don't have the guts to do it themselves. Business, of course, is booming. Bingham is unmarried, with no kids, and two younger sisters he barely keeps up with. He is a man without "burdens" and thinks he's happy that way.
Up in the Air perhaps works beautifully as a procedural about modern, white-collar business travel and as a very specific character sketch. Bingham's hotel-bar meet-cute with fellow traveler Alex (a mature, sexy Vera Farmiga), a budding courtship built on rental-car comparisons, frequent-flyer-mile one-upmanship, and a sarcastic, knowing appreciation of industry jargon ("faux homey" = "foamy"), is dazzling. As is a later hotel-lounge scene where Bingham and no-strings gal pal Alex offer a bemused corrective to the firm lifestyle vision embraced by Bingham's post-collegiate co-worker Natalie (Anna Kendrick).
Reitman's film, beautifully scripted within these limits, captures the free-floating fun a self-aware professional can have within this maze of airports, hotels, business conferences, and casual and perhaps temporary acquaintances. It also captures the disconnection that Bingham keeps at bay and the lure of family and stability that he denies.
Where Up in the Air gets in trouble is when it strives too hard for resonance. Making Bingham's travel-intensive job that of a professional axeman is already delicate territory, but by peppering his film with talking-head testimonials from real laid-off and fired workers, Up in the Air invokes a pain it isn't prepared to deal with. The film wobbles under the weight.
Faced with snapshots of real financial distress, it's hard to care too much about Ryan Bingham's emotional journey. And when the film settles on the easy conclusion that it's the family and friends Bingham rejects that will carry you through the tough times, the audience-pleasing platitude is too glib coming from a film where none of the central characters have had to wonder where their next paycheck is coming from.