When Walter Kirn's serio-comic novel "Up in the Air" was published in 2001, America's economy was still coasting after years of turbo-thrust. Kirn's silky-suited anti-hero, Ryan Bingham, neatly satirized the go-go emptiness of it all: His main ambition was to rack up one million frequent-flier miles.
That Bingham happened to work as a professional downsizer, handing out pink slips at drowning companies, was merely an added irony. The movie version of "Up in the Air," however, arrives in the midst of a crushing recession and double-digit unemployment, making Bingham's job a rather more serious matter.
The film is still a comedy, gracefully directed by Jason Reitman ("Juno") and adapted by Sheldon Turner. George Clooney plays the high-flying Bingham, whose quest has been inflated to 10 million miles. When he meets another jet-setter, Alex (Vera Farmiga), the two begin passionately syncing their handhelds. Hotel quickies are fine by Alex, who delivers a sexually charged line that most men have heard only in their dreams.
Clooney and Farmiga could make a cheap Webisode look like "Gone With the Wind," and they give this movie a sheen of glamour that is usually missing from comedies. There's also a discovery in Anna Kendrick (a bit-player in the "Twilight" films) as Natalie Keener, a young upstart whose callous proposal to ax people via the Internet could make Bingham obsolete.
"Up in the Air" hits rough pockets with its extraneous subplots: a sister, a wedding, a reluctant groom (Danny McBride). And the film feels icky whenever it begins massaging America's fiscally tightened shoulders. Each time Bingham lowers the boom on an employee, Reitman switches to an earnest, faux-documentary style that only heightens the falsity.
Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a glossier, glitzier movie this time of year. It's almost, but not quite, escapist.