“Up in the Air” is the third film from writer/director Jason Reitman, and his third film to take leaps of pathos it doesn’t earn. After the cockeyed satiric miss “Thank You for Smoking” and the curdled mass of whimsy known as “Juno,” it’s a delight to report that “Air” is the most matured, grounded film Reitman has attempted to date. However, while polished, the picture is a crude deconstruction of loneliness and the comfort of isolation, forgoing tangents of refreshing dramatic impulse to tinker fruitlessly with cliché and heavy-handed symbolism.
Flying around America on a daily basis, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate hitman, assisting in the termination of doomed employees. On a quest to capture a magic number of air miles, Ryan has his life down to a perfect travel science. When technology threatens to make his personal touch obsolete, Ryan is handed young Natalie (Anna Kendrick, “Twilight”), a determined go-getter who’s never felt the pressure of face-to-face termination. Teaching Natalie the ropes, Ryan is forced to consider his own solitude when a sexual dalliance with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler, turns romantic, leaving him exposed to feelings he’s spent a lifetime suppressing.
There’s a special lived-in quality to “Air” that’s invigorating. Adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn (by Reitman and Sheldon Turner), the film speaks the nuanced language of constant, perk-heavy air travel fluently, constructing a network of faceless airport terminals and business class seats as a makeshift home for Ryan. A man settled completely into a life of movement, Ryan has built himself a towering wall of detachment, counting on his airborne escapades to whisk him away from his soul-flattening job and pathological need for emotional distance. The possible potential dissections of this character are mind-boggling, but Reitman plays the mental rigidity with all the distressing tonality of a Starbucks lobby, making more time for useless visual poetry than for his characters, who are all trapped in one-note pockets of self-awareness befitting a sitcom.
“Air” is not a bracing examination of Ryan’s nearly OCD world of airports and relationships, but more a muzak variation on ordinary cinematic themes of self-realization and redemption. Reitman eases into obvious metaphorical bouts (Ryan is eager to become a self-help lecture guru, preaching the virtues of a life lived with minimal baggage) and playful antagonism with a palpable gloss, taking the narrative down disappointingly recognizable roads of conflict while the actors look to break free from the melodramatic bondage.
Clooney is the film’s godsend, turning Ryan into a wounded man caught between the luxury of his traveling routine and the dangers of lasting emotional commitments that extend beyond Alex and into his own estranged family. Clooney astounds here with his ability to summon slight articulations of sorrow and resignation, making Reitman look prepared as the actor develops a rotund characterization with a series of distant looks and wild-eyed frustration. Clooney is paired well with Farmiga, and the two generate white-hot sparks as the anonymous lovers bonding over a shared familiarity of travel tips and hotel room seclusion.
Less effective is Kendrick, here to play green and often overshoots her goal, turning Natalie into a petulant brat instead of the corporate hotfoot needed to shake Ryan out of his comfort zone. The untested actress is out of her league against Clooney and Farmiga, though the script doesn’t do her any favors, rendering Natalie on the boobish side, making her meteoric professional rise hard to swallow.
In the second half of the film, “Air” grows impatient and starts swinging wildly to make a dent on the viewer. What was once aching to be meditative turns heavy-handed, tossing in woefully formulaic roadblocks for Ryan so he can assume an encouraging last stand of self. Though marked by impressive fits of performance might, “Up in the Air” is left gasping for some reassuring bit of realism or bravery to permit a lasting impact. Reitman lacks that special finesse, searching for an extraordinary pitch of melancholy, only to connect incomplete ideas with half-baked execution.