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The real villains, if that's the word, are never seen: they're the bosses who haven't the nerve to ax their employees face to face. Still, a movie about a guy who fires people, released at a time when at least a tenth of the workforce is out of work, is utterly nervy. And wonderful. Up in the Air is not primarily an issue movie, banging home its thesis with reductive characters and heavy melodrama. It's a romantic comedy, as Ryan finds a soul mate if either of them has a soul in the sultry Alex (Vera Farmiga), another high-flying executive with an itch for sex in Marriott hotels and airplane commodes. As she tells him, "Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina." It's the perfect relationship affectionate, lusty, unfettered by commitment for two people forever on the go.
That's Ryan's life, and he loves it. "Last year I spent 322 days on the road," he says. "Which means I spent 43 miserable days at home." He's not so much a frequent flyer as an occasional lander. On one flight, when a pilot sits next to him to chat and asks, "Where do you live?" he replies, "Here." Ryan is a citizen of Airworld, as he explains it in the Walter Kirn novel on which the movie is loosely based. "Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency the token economy of airline bonus miles that I've come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn't degrade them. They're not taxed. They're private property in its purest form." If Ryan has a life goal, it's to accumulate 10 million of those miles (that's 2,000 N.Y.-L.A. round trips) and become a member of a very élite fraternity.
His dream will come crashing, if Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has her way. Fresh out of business school, with a psychology minor, she sells the company president (Jason Bateman) a scheme to save millions of dollars in air and hotel bills: just fire people from the home office, over a picture-phone device like iChat. Ryan is stricken. Natalie's plan threatens not his job he can stay in Omaha, Neb., and make the kill calls but his way of life. No more first-class treatment; no familiar salutations from hotel clerks and flight attendants who are his equivalent of friends; no more great sex with Alex. Just chained to a desk in, really, Omaha!?
Kirn's novel inched into nightmare, as Ryan got mixed up with a company called MegaTech and became convinced someone was stealing his miles. Reitman, who previously scored with the quirky hits Thank You for Smoking and Juno, and who shares screenplay credit with Sheldon Turner, soft-pedals the satire and pumps up Ryan's relationships with Alex and Natalie. The movie's development of three strong personalities, each with grails the others don't seek, shows a maturity rare in modern movies. So does Reitman's refusal to judge any of the three. He doesn't force comeuppance or redemption upon them.
Clooney responds to this unusual freedom with the sharpest, most nuanced performance of his career. He gets inside Ryan because, as he has acknowledged, this is a portrait of a character not far from his own: a traveling man with scores of women in his past, riding high on the confidence that people will buy anything he pitches even a savory comedy-drama with a tart aftertaste. He, and Reitman, could close the sale on Oscar night.