Ryan (George Clooney) has a job that most people would despise: He travels around the country and fires people. But, you see, Ryan actually loves his job. For one thing, it allows him to be on the road almost every day of the year-Ryan lives for things like the executive suite access and first class concierge service. Second, it allows him to avoid any kind of meaningful relationship with people: In his world view, people are baggage, just like the kind you don't want to lug on a plane. Finally, Ryan is proud of the fact that he's good at his job—at his best, he can actually make somebody feel goodabout being fired. He loves that about himself.
Of course, any character living in such a perfectly hermeticized world needs a little disruption. And for Ryan, it comes in the form of two women. First, there's fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga). They bond at an airport bar over frequent flier miles and their mutual disgust over the inadequacy of certain car rental services. (This patter is great: It's the Noel Coward of airport dialogue.) She's sexy and sophisticated and interested in a no-strings-attached relationship. "Think of me as you but with a female anatomy," she says—although she uses the more clinical descriptive. Ryan is hooked.
Then there's Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an Ivy League smarty-pants who starts to work for his company—Ryan is charged with showing her the ropes. At first, he gripes about it, but eventually he enjoys having a captive audience: Travel light, he tells her. Wear slip-on shoes and never get close to the people you're firing. But Natalie, an inveterate know-it-all, has no compunctions about questioning Ryan on all his life choices, especially when it comes to love.
Up in the Air is directed by Jason Reitman, who did the great Juno, but also another movie about men and the delusions they cling to called Thank You For Smoking. (In that case, the deluded fellow was a cigarette lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart at his unctuous best.) He coaxes out of his leading man the best work of his career. Clooney's Ryan is cocky and confident, but just a little sad around the edges. It's almost as if he knows that as long as he's moving forward, collecting his miles, doing his job, brandishing his philosophy of people-as-baggage, he'll be just fine. But what happens when he pauses? And, more to the point, what happens when he wants to make a real connection?