By David Germain
The Associated Press
The rather whiny tone of Walter Kirn's book, "Up in the Air," vanishes in Jason Reitman's extreme makeover of this travelogue comedy about a guy who traipses across America, firing people for a living while greedily counting the miles built up in his frequent-flyer program.
Gone is the book's fickle, possibly amnesiac, definitely disturbed main character, replaced by a lovably overconfident road-trip warrior, a dynamo played to perfection by George Clooney. Gone or transformed are many of Kirn's fly-by-night bit players, swapped out for strong supporting figures led by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.
And mostly gone is the self-absorbed narrowness of Kirn's story, a one-man show for which Reitman has substituted an expansive, very relevant tale of corporate downsizing and the people suffering through it.
For two-thirds of the journey, "Up in the Air" flies even straighter and truer than director Reitman's 2007 teen-pregnancy hit, "Juno," delivering snappy screwball dialogue with deep touches of pathos.
The film strays off course in the final act, though, veering from an insightful portrait of willful disconnection in our age of portability and turning kind of mushy, kind of vague, kind of conventional.
Clooney's Ryan Bingham lives for the life of airports, rented cars and executive suites. He expertly maneuvers from hub to hub, staying only long enough to pass out pink slips and offer a semblance of career-transition counseling to the people he fires for downsizing companies whose bosses are too spineless to do the nasty deeds themselves.
Ryan's main goal is to reach the 10 million mile plateau on his frequent-flyer account, an aspiration jeopardized when his own firm decides to implement a program of firing people by teleconference, so they never have to leave the home office.
Just as Ryan meets his goddess of the skies, frequent-flyer soulmate Alex (Farmiga), his company dispatches him with straight-out-of-school efficiency expert Natalie (Kendrick) to test the firing-from-a-distance technology that threatens to ground him for good.
In a brilliant stroke, Reitman found real people who lost their jobs during the recession to go on camera and share their pain, weaving them into montages that bring tearful authenticity to the anguish Ryan leaves in his wake.
'UP IN THE AIR'
* Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
* Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.