Clooney soars in serio-comedy, ‘Up in the Air’

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Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in “Up in the Air.”

by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Where the Oscar-nominated (and six times at that) “Up in the Air” is concerned, there's nothing to be up in the air about: This 2009 Best Picture nominee soars.

Movies don't come much more timely and topical than this marvelous serio-comedy about corporate downsizing. The familiar economic anxiety of recession is an umbilical component, the film's signature emotion, and it fits like a cinematic glove.

There have been few starts to a directorial career as distinguished as that of Jason Reitman, who followed the brilliant “Thank You for Smoking” and the delightful “Juno” with a third consecutive impressive outing, a thoughtful, stimulating mix of light comedy and bittersweet drama.    

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a job terminator who is on the road -- well, in the air -- constantly, doing the dirty work of easy-way-out employers and at the behest of his demanding boss, Jason Bateman.  Bingham's job is to inform people in person that they are being let go and then to soften the blow and prop up their proverbial pillows as a legitimately compassionate hatchet man -- er, that is, "career transition counselor."

He travels so much that he has become obsessed with frequent-flier miles and is approaching his ten-millionth such mile.  A dizzying parade of boozy one-night stands comprises his blessedly unencumbered way of life, a no-emotional-baggage lifestyle that barely leaves room for him to get to know his own siblings.  That is, he wears ties, but not the kind that bind.

Then he meets another obsessive traveler played by Vera Farmiga and begins a fitful romance while training a new colleague played by Anna Kendrick by taking her on the road with him. 

What this young hotshot is proposing is the computerization of Bingham's business, thus eliminating the travel component, which makes him unhappy, and laying off folks by remote control, which makes him livid.

So imagine his reaction when his whatever-it-takes employer brings him in from the skies to sit behind a desk in their Omaha, Nebraska corporate headquarters.

The direction by Oscar nominee Reitman is not only confident but assured and inspired, perhaps even masterful.  And he also co-wrote the fine Oscar-nominated Adapted Screenplay, a loose adaptation of the 2002 novel by Walter Kirn.

Reitman gets three sterling performances.  First and foremost is a consummate star turn by the charismatic Clooney, an Oscar nominee for Best Actor, who almost miraculously manages to make his cocky character vulnerable and sympathetic as well.

In support, Oscar-nominated Farmiga, in her showiest role yet, holds her own and then some as Clooney's opposite number.  And youthful Kendrick, also Oscar-nominated, is funny and fabulous as the unwilling protege and corporate "game-changer."   

Another nice touch here is the use of real workers who have actually been sacked recreating their firing experiences as points of documentary-like punctuation throughout the film.

Jason Reitman's thoroughly enjoyable, richly resonant, and absolutely thought-provoking, dark-edged, R-rated comedy is a movie that matters. 

“Up in the Air” really takes off.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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