Movie review: Clooney dazzles in an uplifting comedy

Al Alexander

Not long ago, it appeared “Up” was the odds-on Oscar favorite, but now everything is suddenly “Up in the Air.” With good reason, too. It’s simply one of the warmest and most entertaining films of this or any year, which is saying something considering it’s about a man who fires people for a living.

Normally, that would be a deal-breaker, especially in these tough economic times. But when the grim reaper is portrayed by someone as charming and charismatic as George Clooney, resistance is futile.

He’s Ryan Bingham, a corporate sociopath devoid of home and family. His life is literally and figuratively up in the air, as he flies from city to city lowering the ax for corporate honchos too chicken to do the deed.

But then they could never sack their employees as gracefully as Ryan, who convinces the poor schlubs he’s doing them a favor by opening up “new opportunities” elsewhere.

“It’s all explained here in the brochure,” Ryan tells them with all the mock sincerity of a skilled politician.

Clooney, true to his trademark wit, plays it perfectly tongue in cheek, as does director Jason Reitman in following up his Oscar-nominated “Juno” with another satisfying mixture of humor, romance and pathos.

He’s the son of Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”), but his DNA is closer to James L. Brooks, the master of comic tearjerkers such as “Broadcast News” and “Terms of Endearment.” There’s also a trace of Billy Wilder pulsating through his veins, especially in his ability to parlay subtle satire into powerful emotions.

You’ll adore every second of it, too, as Reitman’s Wilder-like rat-a-tat dialogue shoots off the sharp tongues of Clooney and the actresses playing the two women who come to define his character, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

They make “Up in the Air” one of those rare films you can’t bear to see end, simply because their characterizations are so rich and complex. And by complex, I mean seriously flawed.

Yet, Reitman, who helped adapt Walter Kirn’s novel to the screen, never passes judgment. Nor does he provide them with tidy endings.

What he does do is make all three achingly real while exploring their culpability in creating a homogenized world in which every city, airport and office building looks cheerlessly the same. Even the hotels and restaurants appear cloned, with familiar corporate logos blighting the landscape from sea to neon shining sea.

It’s a depressing sight for most, but not Ryan. He loves the sameness. Whether he visits a Hilton or a Starbucks, he knows everything will look, taste and smell the same. Sort of like home. And home for him is always an away game.

Which is good because he enjoys being on the road 46 weeks a year, running up the frequent-flier miles and amassing the perks offered by hotels and rental car companies. He’s also free of family, mortgages and domestic responsibility. And if he happens to spot a fellow corporate vagabond as beautiful and alluring as Farmiga’s Alex Goran in a hotel bar, let the sexual Olympics begin.

So imagine Ryan’s despair when he learns that it’s all about to end, courtesy of an Ivy League whiz kid hired by Ryan’s boss (a terrific Jason Bateman) to make the company more cost efficient. And to that end, she has devised a plan that grounds Ryan and his peers to the home offices in Omaha, where they will now do their dirty work over the Internet via iChat.

The spitfire’s name is Natalie, and as played by Kendrick, she’s a neurotic beauty with an IQ in the 160s. But, of course, she’s no match for Ryan, who drags her along on what will probably be his final trip. The idea being that once she experiences the ins and outs of destroying people’s lives on the firing line, she’ll see how heartless it would be to do it via video hookup.

What ensues is a sort of platonic “It Happened One Night,” as they bicker and fight on their way to liking and respecting each other. The chemistry between them is electric, but never is there an inkling of a romantic merger, rendering their bond all the more special.

Besides, Ryan has bigger fish to fry in the love department with Alex, with whom he hooks up at every opportunity, as they zip back and forth across the country.

I’m not reaching when I say Clooney hasn’t been in a steamier romance since he and J.Lo got it on in “Out of Sight” more than a decade ago. Not only are Alex and Ryan charming and sexy together, they also grow into convincing soulmates. “Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” Alex coos to Ryan during their verbal foreplay.

Even more striking is the poignancy their relationship achieves once they head to Wisconsin for the wedding of Ryan’s sister (Melanie Lynskey) and her jittery betrothed, played beautifully by a never better Danny McBride. It also regrettably marks the point where movie conventions dictate that Ryan realize how much he has passed up by shunning connections to everything but the next airport.

Don’t, however, expect Ryan to suddenly turn sappy and redemptive. Reitman, thankfully, has more interesting things in store, including a couple of shocking twists that underscore just how deeply his film gets to you.

And seldom are those emotions stirred more than when Ryan regales McBride’s character with a funny, heartfelt pep talk, as the groom threatens to call the wedding off. It’s one of Clooney’s finest moments on film, and one that will surely help land him a spot on Oscar’s red carpet.

Joining him there no doubt will be Reitman, Farmiga and Kendrick, a trio of tremendously talented people who, like Clooney, are able to whisk you off to interesting places, and unlike the airlines, get you there with a smile on your face.

The Patriot Ledger