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As 'Up in the Air's' corporate downsizer, Clooney is perfect for the job

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Reitman is the man behind "Up in the Air," a film about a professional downsizer. But he's also had to do some firing in real life, including, in one case, giving the axe to a 7-year-old.

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In one of those cosmic cinematic felicities, two other fine movies open today with connections at their core, both anchored by quietly compelling performances on the part of their lead actors.

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The French actor Alex Descas is mesmerizing in "35 Shots of Rum," where he plays a metro conductor living with his grown daughter (the equally charismatic Mati Diop) in an apartment building outside of Paris. Descas had a role in Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control," but here he proves an utterly transfixing leading man, as his character slowly, almost imperceptibly, begins to comes to terms with the departure of his cherished only child.

In another filmmaker's hands, their close relationship would be the stuff of neurosis or pathology; here, director Claire Denis handles her characters with care and compassion, discreetly conveying the pain and exhilaration of letting go.

The connections Robert De Niro makes in "Everybody's Fine" happen to be earthbound -- because his character has a heart condition, he can't fly, so instead of airports he's afoot in train stations and bus terminals. Still, his physical and emotional journey gently echoes Clooney's in "Up in the Air," as his character, a retired widower named Frank, travels across the country to reunite with his grown children.

More than any other American actor, De Niro has made a study of the isolation and pride that define the alpha-male ego; here, as a working-class provider who suddenly fears he may not be needed, he brings a lifetime's worth of experience, vulnerability and nuance to a role that calls less for his still-explosive energy than for stillness.

Even in the first few minutes of "Everybody's Fine," which was directed by Kirk Jones and based on Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 film of the same name, viewers know that De Niro is going to break their hearts: Just watch how Frank quizzes a supermarket clerk on the store's wine selection and prepare to crumple. By just tightening the line of his mouth, De Niro wordlessly conveys volumes about loss and regret and strength and inconsolable aloneness.

At one point, Frank contemplates a wheeled suitcase and infuses in that one moment the sweetness and vulnerability of E.T. See "Everybody's Fine," but one piece of advice: Phone home first.

Up in the Air

****

(109 minutes, at AMC Loews Georgetown) is rated R for profanity and some sexual content.

35 Shots of Rum

***

(102 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains mature themes.

Everybody's Fine

***

(95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong profanity.


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