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‘Up in the Air’ Propels George Clooney to New Heights

Ryan Bingham is suave and effortlessly self-assured, a masterful manipulator of even the messiest situations. It would be tempting to dismiss him as a soulless corporate mercenary, but there is real human feeling behind his veil of calm. That he can divorce himself from it to excel at his job – he’s a hatchet man, charged with handing out pink slips and preconditioning his victims for unemployment – is his gift and his curse.

“To know me is to fly with me,” he tells us, but does anyone really know him? His family doesn’t. He has little use for friends, whom he views as so much excess baggage. Yet Bingham is no Scrooge. He has an uncanny ability to connect with his prey, to tell them what they need to hear even as he robs them of their pride and security. For a guy who carefully holds humanity at arm’s length, he is positively charming.

Bingham is played by George Clooney, whose charisma makes him a natural fit for the part. Though we’ve seen him in roles like this before – as a debonair thief in Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and a fixer for a high-powered law firm in Michael Clayton (2007) – rarely has he played a character so riddled with contradictions. Bingham takes no joy from breaking the bad news – there’s a heart beating beneath his impeccably tailored suits – but a job is a job, and he has a goal.

His ambition, to collect 10 million frequent-flyer miles as he jets from one firing to the next, seems just right. Bingham feels most at ease at an altitude of 30,000 feet, blissfully disconnected from the world below him. When the world comes calling, in the form of a possible soulmate (Vera Farmiga, of The Departed), he is slow to respond. Loneliness is a burden he has had neither the time nor the inclination to bear, and he scoffs at the notion of love.

Up in the Air follows Bingham on a journey that can’t be measured in miles or rewarded with complimentary beverage service. It’s the one trip he never expected to take, but rather than fight it every step of the way, he begins to shed his emotional armor. It may sound trite, this story of a cynic learning to love, but Jason Reitman’s engaging new comedy never rings false.

Up in the Air isn’t played just for laughs – Reitman handles the pain of losing a job with the gravity it deserves, and Clooney, in one of his most gracefully nuanced performances, exposes the emptiness in Bingham’s life with heartbreaking clarity. He is hilariously upbeat throughout, never suspecting that his final destination might be anything less than the fulfillment of his fantasies. When the bottom falls out, Bingham is caught off-guard, faced with a crisis he can’t finesse.

Is being alone the fate this cool hand deserves? Perhaps. But Reitman is less interested in judging Bingham than in inviting us to think for ourselves. The setbacks Bingham endures as his life grows more complicated amount to turbulence on an earthbound flight not of his choosing. Finally, he returns to the sky as if seeking shelter, but the time and place of his arrival are, poignantly, unknown both to him and to us.