By Aaron Mesh

When you live above the clouds, the forecast is always sunny. So that's where George Clooney's Up in the Air hero chooses to exist: in a mile-high club accessed by frequent-flyer platinum cards. As a means to this lifestyle, he soothingly executes mass layoffs for cubicle farms, confiscating the key-cards of the newly fired on their way out the door.

The movie opens with his bird's-eye view of the American plains, set to a Sharon Jones cover of "This Land Is Your Land," but this land isn't your land and it isn't my land—it's his land, and he stays above it. "We are here to make limbo tolerable," he tells his protégée (Anna Kendrick), but he loves limbo and is comforted by the way all airports look the same, offering no reminders that he's in Wichita or St. Louis. Why would he join the poor saps who commit to something, when he knows exactly how that ends?

But Up in the Air is ultimately a warning about what happens when you refuse to settle. It's a heartwarming movie with an unbelievably sad movie struggling to get out.

For a while, however, it disguises its melancholy. Clooney, whose silky veneer has rarely been put through such a workout, moves through airport security checks with the smooth pirouettes of a soft-shoe hoofer and puts the same spin on his lines. "That was improvising," he smiles when his luxury-suite lover (Vera Farmiga) applauds him for "how you burritoed me in the sofa cushions." It doesn't sound like improvising. That sort of pillow talk marks the movie as a product of director Jason Reitman, who now seems permanently attached to pictures (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) in which the dialogue has the inverse ring of old-time brassy Hollywood repartee: Instead of sounding both carefully written and shot off the cuff, it clangs like a first draft that's trying too hard. Despite that obnoxiousness, the movie often dances in places other studio pictures can't reach.

Clooney takes his protégée, an eager little gerbil of a Cornell graduate, along for an itinerary of firings. Reitman paints a white-collar world where the glass-walled protection from the cold outside is melting with the economy. (When his aide asks if he ever follows up with the downsized, Clooney drawls, "Noooooo. Nothing good can come of that.")

Up in the Air is a very good movie (I'd happily watch it again), but it wants to be a better one. The better movie it wants to be is Great World of Sound, an unjustly overlooked indie from 2007 that also follows a pair of exploitative business travelers as they sift through the ruins of the American dream. That film knows exactly what it wants to say about the resilience of the overlooked and unemployed—they believe it is still their land. Up in the Air doesn't reach that destination. Instead, it's this decade's Jerry Maguire. Which isn't bad, but it's settling.

Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
With George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman

Regal Stadium 14
109 min.