Airports, with their endless corridors, encourage a kind of tunnel vision. In Jason Reitman's new film "Up in the Air," Ryan Bingham is focused on moving forward, ignoring what we can see around him. Reuniting couples embrace. Fellow travelers vanish behind partitions, never to be seen again. Posters of smiling pilots thank him for his loyalty.

A middle-aged bachelor executive closing in on 10 million frequent-flier miles, Ryan is a steady customer because it rewards him. He doesn't invest in relationships that demand human connection or emotional reciprocity; it's all about perks. He's not a bad guy, he would tell you, merely a realist. People weigh you down.

He has a philosophy about that, a slick speech about carrying your life in a backpack. It's filled with "all the stuff you have in your life" from knickknacks to "your husband, your wife." The weight of those burdens will slow you down, and "the slower we move, the faster we die." Better to move continuously and alone, he says. "We're sharks."

Ryan (George Clooney) gives that talk repeatedly as he travels the country to fire long-term employees for companies too spineless to do the dirty job themselves. The backpack parable is his way of motivating the culls. Everyone who ever built an empire had to hit rock bottom first, he tells them. Drop your baggage and move on. He looks them in the eye, deftly guiding them through their tears and out of the office. Then it's off to the airport, where he is all know-how and breezy momentum in a sea of sluggish sheep.

When Ryan enters his cheerless apartment, you understand why he's eager to spend 270 days a year on the road. The stewardesses, the first-class clubs, the rental cars, the hotels, the drinks, the streamlined corporate world all provide a safe haven. We meet this footloose, confident fixer at the point where his life is beginning to unravel. He's sabotaged by his need to love and be loved just when he must fend off sharks younger and hungrier than he is.

Ryan's co-workers and fellow travelers are a tough bunch. His smug boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), loves insidious mind games. New co-worker Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year-old striver with the posture of a cadet and the empathy of a cobra, has designed a cost-saving program to fire people by iChat. Ryan negotiates a no-strings fling with fellow business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), nurturing hopes that it might grow. "Think of me as you with a vagina," she cautions.

"Up in the Air" is bitingly comic, intelligent, sad, packed with moments of honest observation and true emotion. It is the third film from Reitman, who is drawn to serious comedies about lives gone wrong. His films feature overconfident people who face hard decisions about the holes they've dug for themselves. "Thank You for Smoking" gave us a tobacco lobbyist who tries to be a responsible father while diligently working to make the world a more cynical place. His smash hit "Juno" was about a precocious pregnant teen who had to learn how little she really understands about life.

Here he plunges us into deeper, chillier waters. There is pain in the story. Other than a few notable performers, every person laid off in the film is a non-actor who was recently fired in real life. The film uses patient editing to highlight the uneasiness in conversations, especially when it's funny. Frames are carefully composed to reveal Ryan's isolation. Even as Clooney's sublime comic timing bats zingers out of the park, the film has the detached look of a psychological drama. This movie will have people arguing about it as they leave the theater. Good. It's worth arguing about.

Reitman has the ideal collaborator in his star. When People magazine named Clooney the sexiest man alive, they pigeonholed him with George Hamilton or Ryan O'Neal, glamorous flavors of the month with a short shelf life. Clooney escaped that snare by pursuing creative challenges.

Here he brings clear-eyed intelligence to the role of a man beginning to recognize himself as an empty suit. It would be easy to make Ryan a louse or a hero who just needs a bit of armor polish. Clooney makes Ryan both ruthless and sympathetic. He never lies or condescends to the people he's dismissing. He hustles them through the grieving process because grief is unproductive. He's like a skilled doctor with a clinical bedside manner. Yet in a pinch he can deliver. He comforts Natalie when a taste of her own medicine reveals the naivete and fragility beneath her go-getter facade.

The film is about connections, airline and otherwise. In the third act Ryan, long untethered from his family, must head home to Wisconsin to talk his sister and her gun-shy groom through their wedding jitters. There's no cheap, ray-of-light moment when he realizes the importance of relationships. The ceremony is just another nudge for a slow learner.

The film leaves Ryan at a boarding-gate crossroads. Reitman trusts us to decide if he's about to enter a world of unlimited freedom, or if he has missed a crucial connection. All we know as he scans the destinations board is that he has amassed a huge number of air miles. Was there ever a prize that sounded so empty?

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186