George Clooney calls home being “Up in the Air”

Kathleen Ambre

Most people don’t particularly like being “up in the air.” Maybe it’s because of the stagnant recycled oxygen smelling of cleaner and synthetic plastic, the inexorable 90-degree chairs seating passengers packed–shoulder to shoulder–like sardines, or the overly-repetitive instructional videos showing you how to buckle a seat belt (like we haven’t figured it out by now), and encouraging you to “purchase luxury merchandise” in Sky Mall magazine.

I guess the free drinks are pretty nice, and there’s always a complementary bag of peanuts, but air travel is not by any means “luxurious” these days; the skies just aren’t as friendly as they used to be. But, for corporate adversary Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney in the witty, bittersweet drama “Up in the Air,” the commonplace setting of an airplane in flight is the very place he calls home.

Your everyday high-altitude commuter–sporting an Armani business suit, juggling BlackBerrys and double-shot lattes–Bingham leads an unusually busy life, uprooted from only a technical home in northern Wisconsin, and detached from the people around him. Crisscrossing the country as a “career transition” counselor, he fires employees for bosses too cowardly to do the dirty work for themselves.

Breaking hearts, crushing egos, launching working class Americans into a state of panic and confusion, most might consider his job rather disheartening. But it suits Bingham, a solo act for whom no hotel room is too depressing or crowd too lonely, making his character ripe for the dramatic picking.

Director Jason Reitman–young yet talented–introduces Bingham’s character in an honest yet somewhat unflattering light: front and center, impartial and ingenuous.

But let’s face it, George Clooney can play the most villainous of roles–escaped convict in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), the smooth criminal of “Ocean Eleven’s” A-list-packed franchise (2001), bloodthirsty divorce attorney and womanizer in “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003), vanity-be-damned CIA veteran in “Syriana” (2005), corporate malfeasance in “Michael Clayton” (2007)–and get by on charm, empathy, and of course, sex appeal. Women want him, men want to be him and even after nearly two decades since his E.R. heartthrob years, things haven’t really changed.

In his latest “troubled soul” role–suitably sleek, suitcase in tow–the routine existence of Mr. Clooney’s character is captured by carefully framed, rapid shots (a near-perfect narrative device of Reitman’s). Known for his writing in “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking,” Jason Reitman first bankrolled this movie alongside his father, Ivan Reitman, with the initial intent of another lighthearted, witty comedy.

But, “Up in the Air” takes on another genre, possibly more profound than what was expected. Don’t get me wrong, this movie has its laugh-out-loud comedic moments and a catchy streamlined script, but Reitman instilled more drama than comedy in this narrative.

But, let me remind you, it’s not all about Clooney (as enthralling as he might be). Alex, Bingham’s female businesswoman counterpart played by Vera Farmiga, livens up the story line, bringing out genuine warmth and absolute vulnerability in her co-star. Their intricate relationship–oh-so romantic, dramatic, and inevitably complicated–displays the strength of Farmiga as an actress in modern-day American cinema.

Clooney’s raw talent is hard to match but Farmiga effortlessly levels the playing field, a rare accomplishment comparable to Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 caper film “Out of Sight.” Bingham’s fellow colleague Natalie–played by a fierce, ponytail-swinging Anna Kendrick–is also worth mentioning. A classic, somewhat naive go-getter, she dictates her every scene, stealing some of the limelight as she accompanies Bingham on the road as part of an efficiency campaign. The stereotypical human-resources expert–coming of age in front of a computer, devoid of true face-to-face human interaction–she comes across as the “bad guy” compared to Bingham’s personable smile and motivational persuasion.

However, as composed and inherent as Bingham’s nature may seem on the surface, there is without a doubt a trace of superficial ambition given his unattached standard of living. His smile may be bright but his eyes give him away; there is something terribly off about Bingham’s blithe attitude toward his own existential reality and profession.

Nearing his life goal of 10 million frequent flier miles, this peripatetic executive stands idly by as the so-called flawless traits of his deliberately chosen lifestyle unravel before his eyes. Once he hits 10 million aboard American Airlines, suddenly the life he has fabricated for himself lacks meaning and “effortless” sacrifices–a temporary home, casual, piddling flings–are no longer admiral manifestations of a dignified way of life, but blatant reminders of his disparity and artificial happiness.

You can easily fall for Bingham–laugh alongside him, maybe even shed a tear or two–but don’t get too carried away and accidentally mistake him for some sort of hero. As Mr. Bingham said “to know me, is to fly with me.” Despite triumph, despite tragedy: some of us just belong up in the air.