Up in the Air: A First-Class Journey of Self-Discovery

Based on but impressively expanded from a novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air feels exactly right for these times, when everyone is worried about job security and the idea of the handsomest movie star playing the most loathsome weasel is particularly funny. Because Clooney doesn’t hold back on the charisma, you want Ryan to have a change of heart. But because his cynical wisecracks and his smooth talk are so well played, you’ll enjoy every minute of his bad behavior. In one memorable scene, in which J.K. Simmons (the dad in Juno) plays a cashiered employee, Ryan reminds the guy he once trained in cooking school and has at last reached the point where he has an excuse to do the thing he really wants to do. Is this just spin? Maybe, but it works.

Director and co-writer Jason Reitman, who made Juno and Thank You For Smoking, gets close to the spirit of the latter movie here, but Up in the Air is a mature work, Reitman’s best and most engaging film yet. Whenever the movie threatens to open fire on too-easy satiric targets, it surprises you with its humanity. For instance, on a trip home (it turns out Ryan is from Wisconsin) to attend a family wedding, Ryan learns that what he considers a corny chore -- photographing a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiance at various landmarks -- carries meaning and even love to the couple, because they can’t afford a honeymoon.

Love is a cause of severe allergic reaction in Ryan. You know that moment, he asks, when the whole world goes quiet as you look deep into someone’s eyes and see your own soul? He doesn’t. But with all of his frequent flier miles he is taking a first-class journey of self-discovery, and in one of the best films of the year it’s a pleasure to fly next to him.