Up in the Air

It’s bad enough being laid off from your job. Imagine getting the news from a suit-wearing stranger you’ve never seen before who was flown in at the company’s expense just to fire you and a bunch of your coworkers. With all that money they spent paying a drone to do their dirty work, they could have kept you on an extra couple days. Jerks.

Such “outsourced termination” companies really exist, and as you might imagine, business is booming these days. “Up in the Air,” based on Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, takes on a new relevance now. Adapted and directed by Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”), it addresses the uncertainties of the current economy without becoming mired in them — it’s still a very, very funny movie, too, with a timeless message: You may not always have your job, so make sure it’s not the only thing in your life.

The star firer at Career Transition Corporation is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), and he loves his work. The company is based in Omaha, but Ryan prides himself on only being home a few days out of the year. For him, “home” is the road: airport lounges, airplane cabins, rental cars, hotels. He’s good at firing people cleanly, in a way that minimizes the drama. Get in, break the news, get out, fly to the next city.

Ryan has two sisters, one of whom is about to get married, but he mostly views family as a burden. His loyalties are to particular airlines and hotels. His goal in life is to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles on American Airlines. He’s occasionally hired to give motivational seminars, the message of which is that personal relationships only drag you down. (“What kind of f*****-up message is that?!” someone finally says, vocalizing what the viewer has been thinking all along.)

Into this peaceful, unexamined existence come two interruptions, one welcome and one not. First is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flyer who shares Ryan’s love of non-commitment to other human beings and who is glad to have one-night stands whenever they happen to be in the same city at the same time. Surely there is no danger that either of them will fall in love and want something deeper, right?

The other intruder is also a woman, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young new hotshot at Career Transition Corporation who has some bright ideas about streamlining the firing process. Ironically, Ryan’s own job is now in danger, and he must take Natalie on the road with him to show her how it’s done. He scoffs at her inexperience with air travel — her bulky carry-ons, her neck pillows — while she quickly deduces that Ryan lives in “a cocoon of self-banishment.”

The role of a good-looking, charming, 40-ish bachelor who loves being unattached was tailor-made for George Clooney, so it’s no wonder he’s effortlessly funny and engaging in it. Ryan is eventually forced to reconsider his priorities and learn some valuable life lessons, but apart from one trite moment where he’s giving a seminar and has an epiphany midway through it (how often has that cliche been used?), the film avoids the predictable route. Indeed, there are a few honest surprises, some turns in the story that you would not have expected.

Through all the comedy is a timely undercurrent of melancholy, embodied in montages of nameless people reacting to the news of their firing. I admire this tactic, and it improves the film tremendously. It would have been callous to make a film about people getting fired, in today’s economic climate, without acknowledging the reality of it. One of the laid-off victims, played by Zack Galifianakis, speaks up when Ryan gives him the axe: “Who the f*** are you?” Ryan, serving as narrator, says, “Excellent question. Who the f*** am I?” By the end of the film, he’s figured out the answer. As “Fight Club” told us a decade ago, you are not your job. And if you are, you shouldn’t be.

B+ (1 hr., 49 min.; R, a little nudity, some sexual dialogue, some harsh profanity.)