George Clooney makes a smooth ride out of the slight but deft Up In The Air 

George Clooney makes the perfect Ryan Bingham in Jason Reitman's adaptation of Walter Kirn's best-seller Up in the Air. In real life, Clooney's known for his jet-setting playboy lifestyle, and in Up in the Air he's playing a guy who studiously avoids all family and long-term romantic entanglements, choosing instead to spend most of his time moving from airport to airport and hotel to hotel, racking up frequent flyer miles and preferred customer points. Bingham makes his living as a firer-for-hire, paid by corporations to explain termination packages to downsized employees. He's also a self-styled self-help guru, giving seminars on how people can "empty their backpacks," both literally and metaphorically. When Bingham's boss saddles him with progressive young protégée Natalie Keener (well played by Anna Kendrick), he teaches the kid how to live an unburdened life, and while his character's pontificating, Clooney seems to be whispering in the audience's ear: "This is my actual life—and y'know, it's really not so bad."

Of course, Reitman and Sheldon Turner's screenplay has a slightly different message. Their Up in the Air is designed to take audiences inside the chilly life of a chilly man, and make us pity him. Bingham's dilemma—and philosophy—is best illustrated when his sister mails him a cardboard cutout of a family member, which Bingham can't quite fit into his suitcase. Here's a guy who's shrunk his world to such a degree that even the slightest change sticks out. Similarly, when Bingham meets the equally assured, drop-dead-gorgeous businesswoman Alex Goran (played by Vera Farmiga), he gets so smitten that he starts altering his flight schedules so the two can share layover time. Reitman and Turner want us to root for Bingham, to hope he'll see how invigorating a little disruption can be.

And yet the cutout joke and The Alex Situation both exemplify the main problem with Up in the Air: As funny and true as the movie often is, it telegraphs everything it wants the audience to understand about Clooney's character and the life he leads. There's nothing especially challenging about what Reitman wants to put across here—unless the ideas that unemployment sucks and that people need people have fallen out of favor. Even Reitman's use of Sharon Jones' cover of "This Land Is Your Land" over the opening credits seems to miss the point. Bingham doesn't fly across the country in order to reclaim America for himself; he does it so he can stay nestled in the bosom of his favorite airport lounges. In its unconventional perspective on exploiting the advantages of modern life, Up in the Air at times resembles Fight Club...only without all that messy fighting.

Still, even though Up in the Air is a small, easy pill to swallow, it does produce the desired effect. The movie is amusing, and moving, and Reitman does subvert expectations here and there. There are some elements of the story that are so obvious that Reitman's willing to let them go unexplained, and some big sentimental moments that Reitman keeps as small as he can. Reitman's occasional shift to docurealism in the firing scenes is of questionable taste—especially given that the movie seems to be saying, "Suck it up, jobless, at least you've got a wife and kids to hug"—but Up in the Air deserves credit for acknowledging the reality of life in 2009.

And it's impossible to overstate how good Reitman is with actors. Farmiga comes off as sexy and wise, while Kendrick is a revelation as a young woman who resists Bingham's worldview while acknowledging its attractions. And Clooney, naturally, strikes just the right tone throughout, halfway between super-cool and sad-sack. Up in the Air may be as comforting and predictable as a hotel suite, but with Clooney in charge, at least you'll travel first-class.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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