WASHINGTON -- "Last year," Ryan Bingham says, "I spent 322 days on the road, which means that I had to spend 43 miserable days at home." Home is an Omaha rental unit less furnished than a hotel room. He likes it that way.
Today he is where he feels at home, in an airport -- glass walls and glistening steel, synthetic sincerity and antiseptic hospitality. Today he is showing Natalie, a ferocious young colleague, how an expert road warrior deals with lines at security screening:
Avoid, he says, getting behind travelers with infants ("I've never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes"). Or behind elderly people ("Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left on earth"). Do get behind Asians: "They're light packers, treasure efficiency, and have a thing for slip-on shoes."
Natalie: "That's racist."
Bingham: "I stereotype. It's faster."
Played with seemingly effortless perfection by the preternaturally smooth George Clooney, Bingham is the cool porcelain heart of the movie "Up in the Air." It is a romantic comedy, although Bingham begins immune to romance and, after a brief and ill-advised lapse into feeling, ends the movie that way. And the comedy is about pain -- about administering it somewhat humanely to people who are losing their jobs.
Bingham is a "termination engineer." He fires people for companies that want to outsource the awkward, and occasionally dangerous, unpleasantness of downsizing. His pitter-patter for the fired -- "Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now" -- rarely consoles. But with his surgeon's detachment, he is more humane than Natalie, who says this:
"This is the first step of a process that will end with you in a new job that fulfills you. ... I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread the news just yet. Panic doesn't help anybody."
A confident young cost-cutter from Cornell, her brainstorm is to fire people by video-conferencing. She tells one desolated man:
"Perhaps you're underestimating the positive effect your career transition may have on your children. ... Tests have shown that children under moderate trauma have a tendency to apply themselves academically as a method of coping."
Bingham considers his low emotional metabolism an achievement, and in motivational speeches he urges his audiences to cultivate it: "Your relationships are the heaviest components of your life. ... The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We're sharks."
The movie begins and ends with everyday people talking to the camera, making remarkably sensitive statements about the trauma of being declared dispensable. Some, however, recall that the consequences included being reminded that things they retained, such as their human connections, are truly indispensable.
The opening soundtrack is a weird version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." This hymn to Depression-era radicalism is catnip for people eager to tickle a political manifesto from any movie that has a contemporary social setting.
But although "Up in the Air" may look like a meditation on the Great Recession -- "The Grapes of Wrath" for a service economy -- it is based on a novel published in 2001, during the mildest recession since the Depression, and written before that.
You must remember this: In 2006, the last full year before this downturn, when the economy grew 2.7 percent and the unemployment rate was just 4.6 percent, 3.3 million people lost their jobs to the normal churning of a dynamic economy. This "creative destruction" has human costs, but no longer is optional. America has an aging population, and has chosen to have a welfare state that siphons increasing amounts of wealth from the economy to give to the elderly. Having willed this end, America must will the means to it -- sometimes severe economic efficiency to generate revenues to finance the entitlement culture. So "Up in the Air" is sobering entertainment for a nation contemplating a giant addition to the entitlement menu.
In addition to being perhaps the best American movie of 2009, "Up in the Air" is two mature themes subtly braided and nuanced for grown-ups. One is the sometimes shattering sense of failure, desperation and worthlessness that overwhelms middle-aged people who lose their livelihoods. The other is that such shocks can be reminders that there is more to life than livelihoods.
But not for Bingham. He is, in his fashion, content. In E.M. Forster's novel "Howards End," Margaret famously exhorted, "Only connect!" Bingham would rather not.