I’m Changing My Tune on Clooney!

up 03401v01 Im Changing My Tune on Clooney!Up in the Air
Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

George Clooney’s performances are always variations on the same themes: tongue-in-cheek frat-house humor; a rampant ego that makes love to the camera when no girl is around; and the suave wit and good looks of a personality that is droll and self-assured enough to get him over the hurdles when range is required or intelligent dialogue poses a challenge. But in Up in the Air, a delightful new romantic comedy that never suffers from attention deficit disorder, his acting chops are as sharp as his designer suits. There’s less juvenile canoodling, more solid concentration and a welcome indication that for once he might even be taking himself more seriously than just another Hollywood matinee idol.

Guided with precision by Jason Reitman, the Oscar-nominated director of Juno, from an elegant screenplay by Mr. Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the satiric novel about corporate America by Walter Kirn, Mr. Clooney gives the most mature performance of his career, in a role as snugly tailored to his caustic charm as cashmere socks. He’s so ingratiating that he regains some of the dignity he lost in the horrible O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a lot of the savvy he trashed in the moronic The Men Who Stare at Goats. In the smart and topical Up in the Air, he plays a man named Ryan Bingham who takes advantage of America’s unhappiest period—the current economic collapse—by traveling all over the map firing people, downsizing companies, draining corporations of their best talent and destroying people’s hopes and futures. Headquartered in Omaha, Ryan is what polite circles refer to as a “career transition counselor” (and what his victims call a “road warrior”), rewarded with expense accounts, and a regular in Hilton hotel bars, rental car agencies and Admirals Club lounges from coast to coast. He spends 322 days on the road and 43 miserable days at home, in a job that comes with a boarding pass; he’s ready to pounce whenever the automobile, housing, health insurance and banking markets fail. His rules: no sympathy, no personal life, no committed relationships. His goal: to reach the elitist level of travelers who amass 10 million frequent-flyer miles. It’s a life no sane human would envy, but things change with sparks like the midnight sun when his job is challenged by a cost-effective new girl trainee in his company, and he meets his equal in a beautiful fellow frequent flyer named Alex (the extraordinary, versatile and alluring Vera Farmiga), who shakes up his marble coolness when she says: “Just think of me as yourself—only with a vagina.”

(Spoiler alert!) The movie shifts into high gear when Ryan inadvertently falls in love, makes somebody else a top priority and discovers with a poignancy that shatters his veneer that he is not one of hers. In movies, it’s always the woman who gets dumped. This time, it’s the man who makes a compromise and pays an enormous emotional price. The woman is totally focused in a double life that provides the film with its biggest surprise. He’s had a taste of the alternative, and going back to his old venal ways will wear off like a bee sting. It’s a film that gives Mr. Clooney the chance to work his special brand of cynicism, and effortlessly play what he does best—the aggressive, sarcastic, self-centered center of everyone else’s emotions, a real man who eats quiche. But he also shows some rare vulnerability for a change, and you like him for it. The movie works as both a short-wired romance between two sophisticated people torn between love and their careers, and as a sober indictment of the kind of people responsible for corporate layoffs and America’s shrinking economy. Jason Reitman is a terrific director who gets better with each film, and he gets a mammoth performance out of George Clooney that will most likely please critics and crowds alike. In Up in the Air, his feet never touch the ground. Another performance this solid, and I might become a fan myself.

rreed@observer.com