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Up in the Air: A First-Class Journey of Self-Discovery

No man since Cary Grant has looked better in a suit than George Clooney, and if you outfitted Cary with a BlackBerry and a laptop and gave him elite flying status, he could be the devilish playboy Clooney portrays with consummate ease in Up in the Air, a timely and astute comedy.

When Clooney isn’t dashing around the Middle East chastising America (in Three Kings, Syriana, The Men Who Stare at Goats, etc.) he can be one of the screen’s most charming rogues, and he works that act to perfection as Ryan Bingham, a corporate layoff artist tasked with jetting from city to city to inform office workers that they’re being sacked. The worse the economy gets, the better things look for Ryan. His boss (Jason Bateman) tells him that the car industry is about to get hit with massive layoffs. Yippee!

As a side gig, Ryan is a motivational speaker who gets invited to still more cities and conferences to deliver his standard spiel about how everyone is saddled with a “backpack” full of responsibilities and commitments. Ryan tells rapt audiences how they must unload their burdens, jettison the excess weight, be free. What can be so important as to be worth holding on to? Not pictures, he tells people. They’re for people who can’t remember anything. Pop a ginkgo tablet and burn ’em, he advises.

Ryan doesn’t just live out of a suitcase; he lives out of a rollerboard. (Checked-through luggage, he says, costs you 35 minutes per trip.) He spends only a few days a year at his Omaha home. It looks exactly like a hotel room, and that’s the way he likes it.

But change is in the wind; his boss introduces Ryan to a young superstar (Anna Kendrick) in the layoff industry who matches Ryan’s expertise in cutting payroll but with an alarming new twist: Natalie Keener fires people using video conferencing. The company is going to be reengineered as a tele-firing firm, which means Ryan, who has the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, receives that sentence dreaded by every actual 12-year-old: He is grounded. That seems to doom the exciting little no-strings affair he has begun up with a fellow road warrior (Vera Farmiga), who is as uninterested as he is in a long-term attachment. Each gets turned on in a very funny scene in which they show off the VIP status cards they have been given by every airline, hotel, and car rental agency in the country.

Based on but impressively expanded from a novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air feels exactly right for these times, when everyone is worried about job security and the idea of the handsomest movie star playing the most loathsome weasel is particularly funny. Because Clooney doesn’t hold back on the charisma, you want Ryan to have a change of heart. But because his cynical wisecracks and his smooth talk are so well played, you’ll enjoy every minute of his bad behavior. In one memorable scene, in which J.K. Simmons (the dad in Juno) plays a cashiered employee, Ryan reminds the guy he once trained in cooking school and has at last reached the point where he has an excuse to do the thing he really wants to do. Is this just spin? Maybe, but it works.

Director and co-writer Jason Reitman, who made Juno and Thank You For Smoking, gets close to the spirit of the latter movie here, but Up in the Air is a mature work, Reitman’s best and most engaging film yet. Whenever the movie threatens to open fire on too-easy satiric targets, it surprises you with its humanity. For instance, on a trip home (it turns out Ryan is from Wisconsin) to attend a family wedding, Ryan learns that what he considers a corny chore -- photographing a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiance at various landmarks -- carries meaning and even love to the couple, because they can’t afford a honeymoon.

Love is a cause of severe allergic reaction in Ryan. You know that moment, he asks, when the whole world goes quiet as you look deep into someone’s eyes and see your own soul? He doesn’t. But with all of his frequent flier miles he is taking a first-class journey of self-discovery, and in one of the best films of the year it’s a pleasure to fly next to him.