Unemploment has been hovering close to ten percent for a while now, but its effects have been around far longer than that. An intriguing take on it -- both personal and impersonal -- is presented in 2009's Up in the Air. This is an original, sometimes funny, sometimes difficult take on it from the perspective of an isolated man.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has an unusual job: firing people. His company sends him all over the country to fire people whose bosses can't do it themselves. Ryan spends almost all of his time in airports or in transit -- and he loves it: He is approaching ten million miles of travel, he has getting through airports down to a precise science, he takes pride in his job (being comforting to, without getting personal with, the fired; then passing them a folder with their severance information), and he enjoys the isolation. Ryan also has speaking seminars on his unfettered lifestyle: "The slower we move the faster we die. 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." He also avoids his near-empty apartment and his family, even with his sister's upcoming wedding.

Movies require a change or interruption to advance the story, and Up in the Air hits Ryan with three big changes. First there's Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), a young and ambitious new hire at Ryan's company who has a bold new plan: Fire people through the Internet instead of in person. Fearing the end of his life of travel, Ryan winds up taking Anna on his job, showing her firsthand what it means to lay people off.

Second, Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow business traveler and soon a romantic interest. They swap preferences on hotels, compare discount cards, and compare travel plans to see when they might meet next. For Ryan, Alex is a definite kindred spirit -- and possibly his first real connection with someone.

Third, there's the aforementioned wedding. The engaged couple Julie (Melanie Lynskey) and Jim (Danny McBride) don't travel much, so they give relatives (including Ryan) a large cardboard cutout of them to be photographed in the places they want to go but can't. This reminder of family is often seen poking out of Ryan's otherwise carefully-packed travel bag, as his family seems to pursue him on his once-simple travels.

Up in the Air is a very impressive movie. Ryan is a very complex character: He clearly takes pride in his lifestyle and his job, but he never sees the people he fires again and he never looks back. George Clooney gives this character enough charm to make him likable and enough depth to make him alone at the same time. The movie doesn't sugarcoat being fired (many of those fired are played by people who had been fired weeks or months before this movie was filmed), and the images of the recession -- offices stripped almost bare, pages literally filled with names of people to be terminated -- are quite powerful. Director Jason Reitman finds just the right tone with the other characters as well, from Anna's seeing firsthand what it's like to end a person's job to Alex and her carefree relationship with Ryan. Up in the Air is original, it's funny, it's even tragic -- and it's a powerful experience.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

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