George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, in 'Up in the Air'

Dir. Jason Reitman
(2009, R, 109 min)
★ ★ ★

Director Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is a nice film, a warm and funny film; I liked it, but it’s a rather minor achievement. It doesn’t feel like a film that will be contending for Oscars. Its themes — cynical loner learns to open up — are familiar. Its observations of the economic crisis — lotsa people getting fired — don’t dig very deep. And the central romance follows a predictable course. But it’s nice. Well-written. I felt good when it ended. This happens a few times every awards season: a perfectly decent film disappoints me only because advance hype was for something greater.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a top employee at a company that specializes in … what do you call it exactly? Termination consulting? Layoff-mechanics? If someone in the film mentions the exact job title, I’ve forgotten it. It’s one of those businesses that didn’t need to exist until someone convinced someone else to pay for it: they fire people for a living. Ryan’s boss is played by Jason Bateman, who in 2008’s Hancock played an “image consultant.” These days, it seems, you can make up a specialty, call yourself a consultant, and write your own ticket.

Ryan’s job keeps him traveling the country throughout the year, and that’s just how he likes it. From time to time, he’s asked to hold seminars in which he extolls the benefits of pulling up stakes and avoiding commitments. Much to his dismay, young company upstart Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) devises a cost-saving model that involves switching to remote webcams — because the only thing better than being fired by a stranger is being fired by a stranger over the internet. But before the system is implemented, Ryan is tasked with training her during a last round of firings across the country.

Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is another road warrior. Ryan meets her in a hotel bar, where they trade notes on car-rental companies, compare frequent-flier miles, have sex, and coordinate schedules so they can meet up again in their next city in common. We don’t learn her line of work in any detail, but what she does is less important than who she is: uprooted, a wanderer just like he is.

Of the financial crisis we see fairly little. It’s mostly contained in the firing scenes, of which only a few stand out above the familiar refrains of “I’ve given [insert duration of employment here] to this company!” A memorable one features J.K. Simmons, who co-starred in Reitman’s previous films, Juno and Thank You For Smoking; he holds up pictures of his two children and asks what he should tell them. Better still are two shots: one a pan of an office nearly vacant of furniture and personnel; and another of Natalie, sitting alone in a room full of empty chairs. Images like those are visually eloquent. The film could have used more of them.

As I considered this story, two titles came to mind. 2000’s Wonder Boys was also about a middle-aged loner who takes on a young protégé and finds himself. 2002’s About a Boy follows a cynic who gradually realizes that he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. Similar territory is explored here. Those were great films. This is a good one.