By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
How much does your life weigh?
It's a question Ryan Bingham asks regularly. Not to himself, since Ryan — played splendidly by George Clooney — is certain he knows the answer, and it's "too much." But he poses the question in motivation groups he leads, moonlighting from his profession as a corporate downsizer.
Just as Ryan trims companies of dead weight, he urges listeners to empty their lives of anything dragging them down. Possessions are burdens but not as heavy as people and the hassle of relating to them.
"The slower we move the faster we die," Ryan says with rehearsed aloofness. "Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks."
Life begins weighing upon Ryan more heavily than he expects or wishes in Jason Reitman's superbly existential comedy Up in the Air. Perhaps "comedy" isn't the right word. What Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner accomplish with Up in the Air is funny yet with dramatic resonance in each quip; if we don't laugh at Ryan's self-assurance that living isn't living unless it's alone, we might cry.
Reitman briskly sets up Ryan's preferred lifestyle as an obsessively frequent flier, a shark "swimming" at 30,000 feet, more comfy in airport food courts than his own apartment. He's constantly surrounded by people and empowered by knowing he can ignore them, or play them for the next elite airline perk. You're only lonely if you think you are.
Between layoff missions, Ryan meets his nomadic match, an oversexed businesswoman named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, still underrated but not for long). Alex shares his somewhat erotic obsession with traveling and calculated trysts. She might be Ryan's bridge to normalcy, except neither wants their wings clipped.
Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) may do it for him. An upstart in the agency named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has a plan to perform firings over the Internet, trimming travel budgets to nearly nothing. Ryan objects, not only to avoid being grounded but because he believes doomed workers deserve the dignity of face-to-face layoffs. Up in the Air is brilliantly topical in that regard, with real unemployed people reacting directly to the camera.
Ordered to mentor Natalie, tempted by Alex to settle down, and expected at a sister's wedding, everything that Ryan worked so long to unpack from his personal baggage loads up again. Maybe too heavily in the third act but salvaged by a bravely open-ended finale.
Ryan would be pathetic except that he's portrayed by Clooney, a master at using leading man looks for something much deeper than eye candy. Robert Redford did it early in his career, before causes became more important than screen effect. Watching a golden boy tarnish before our eyes is breathtaking; someone who should have it all in fact has nothing.
Clooney has never balanced that contradiction better than in Up in the Air. Ryan Bingham is likely to remain his signature role for a long time, if not forever. Clooney plays him sexy, sarcastic and a bit sad, with swaggering conviction that he's right and everyone else is wrong, or simply unschooled in the Bingham way of doing things. Ryan will learn differently. Clooney plays that slow roiling awareness to perfection, in one of 2009's best films.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.