Andy Bockelman: ‘Up in the Air:’ Mid-life crisis at 20,000 feet

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‘Up in the Air’

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Running time: 109 minutes

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

Our country may have a plethora of unique topographical features, but they all tend to run together when you’re “Up in the Air.”

St. Louis. Detroit. Miami.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has made his mark on these cities and many more. His line of work as a career transition counselor takes him to corporations nationwide so that he can perform the undesirable task of layoffs. It’s a job that brings him much disdain from the people on the chopping block and no affection from anyone else.

Because there is no one else.

Ryan has painstakingly carved out a lifestyle where there are no attachments and no expectations, barely even staying in touch with his sisters (Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey). And it works out great until he is ordered back to his corporate headquarters in Omaha, where an up-and-coming young executive (Anna Kendrick) has made some changes to the company’s style, much to his displeasure.

Facing off against the new girl, Ryan challenges her to observe his tried and true methodology rather than upsetting the status quo. But as they make the rounds, both of them learn that what they have made out of their lives may not be what either of them really wants.

Clooney is captivating as a guy who has made a religion out of avoiding connections.

Wait until you hear his motivational speech “What’s in Your Backpack?” You’ll never want to maintain another relationship again.

But for all the jet-setter’s big talk about loving his seclusion, you know he really wants to join the rest of the world, even if he says his only goal is joining an elite club of Frequent Flyer Mile members — to be fair, 10 million miles is quite a triumph.

Vera Farmiga is warmly self-assured as the fellow traveler he meets, who shares his sense of detachment and considers a debate about rental car companies and comparisons of VIP hotel key cards to be foreplay. Kendrick initially comes off as the typically driven Ivy Leaguer with a venomous, Type-A personality, but it soon becomes clear that she is much more susceptible to the hazards of interpersonal contact than her more seasoned colleagues.

No wonder she champions digitizing the career transition business and taking out the nasty business of being in the same room as the people getting fired.

Ryan’s insistence that face-to-face interaction is the only way to go is the height of irony considering his approach to his private life, what there is of it. But his beliefs about personally facing those whose lives he’s about to ruin demonstrate more backbone than you’d expect to see in a movie about someone who fires folks for a living — although, as a rule, he never uses the word “fired.”

The relevancy of corporate downsizing is timely in our national financial quagmire, not to mention the satirical jibes about the technological age, but it’s the emptiness of Ryan’s existence that provides most of the film’s humor and drama.

His attitude starts out as drolly brash, but he soon learns there’s more to life than not having one. And this distressing insight comes through only once Ryan realizes that despite having been to nearly every major city in the nation, he’s never truly gone anywhere, and he has taken in practically nothing in his travels.

What really makes “Up in the Air” take off is that it isn’t framed as a guilt-laden morality tale about the downfalls of a life on the road, devoid of family and friends. Instead, this character study is a very personal admission of loneliness and longing in a world of one’s own creation.

And all the perks of the Admirals Club can’t fix that.

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