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With Clooney in peak form as downsizer, 'Air's' upsides are nonstop

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

When George Clooney is at the peak of his physical attractiveness, technical chops and instinctive ease before the camera, he operates not just as an actor but also as a finely machined screen object.

No doubt, he's been a joy to behold in such recent forays as "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." But "Up in the Air," a smart, alert, supremely entertaining movie featuring Clooney at his suavest, seems cosmically tuned to his particular key. The last time this happened was with "Michael Clayton," and fans of that film know the drill: The filmgoer's primary obligation in these instances is simply to sit back, order a drink and enjoy the flight.

And, in the case of "Up in the Air," that means literally: Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who spends most of his life on airplanes and likes it that way. Bingham is a road warrior, a smooth talker who can make you hear "Yes" even when he's clearly saying "No." He has his spiel down. When one of his latest victims wavers, he assures them that anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world has been where they are. And they buy it.

When he's not busy firing people, he's giving inspirational lectures where he strews such pearls of wisdom as "Moving is living" and "We're not swans, we're sharks."

Anyone who's read Walter Kirn's wonderful novel of the same name won't see but the bare bones of it here. (Kirn must have approved, since he's prominently featured as one of Ryan's colleagues at corporate headquarters in Omaha.) In an act of insight and terrific imagination, director Jason Reitman has thrown most of the book out, keeping Bingham's character and inventing two more, a sexy fellow traveler named Alex (Vera Farmiga) and a young whippersnapper named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), whose ideas about teleconferencing threaten to do unto Ryan what he's been doing unto others all these years.

Reitman's previous movies, "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno," were both assured, entertaining comedies, but with "Up in the Air" the 32-year-old director has taken an enormous leap forward, toggling between comedy and drama, romance and social observation, satire and sorrow with the aplomb of Chesley Sullenberger. With the feckless, charismatic Ryan at the film's center, Reitman could easily have made a perfectly absorbing topical "dramedy" or glib picaresque with the usual plot beats and payoffs.

Look closer, though, and you'll see that the most profound, subtle joys of "Up in the Air" are the ways Reitman continually subverts the established paradigms, first by having Clooney's character meet two girls, each of whom pushes wildly different buttons in him. Like Michael Clayton, Ryan Bingham handsomely embodies a certain kind of archetype of male loneliness -- boy, is he not a swan. But the way Reitman confects for Ryan to confront his most cherished assumptions about happiness and meaning isn't through crisp narrative devices and false catharsis, but by dog-legging into what turn out to be "Up in the Air's" best sequences.

In one such scene, three characters engage in what must be the most amusingly, brutally honest conversation about men and women and life and expectations ever committed to film; later they take an unexpected, gently transforming cruise to nowhere that poetically captures how experience can turn on the thinnest of dimes. (The best such digression is a sequence set at a Midwestern wedding, which Reitman films and paces like a home movie.)

"Up in the Air" is all about connection -- literally, when Ryan rushes to make his flights, and figuratively, when he avoids the emotional version at all costs.

With as assured and perceptive a filmmaker as Reitman at the controls, and with Clooney and his co-stars so impeccably inhabiting their roles (Kendrick deserves special mention for her spot-on depiction of the drive and longing that propel her young character), it shouldn't come as a shock that the climax of "Up in the Air" comes as such a shock. But it does, and the fact that the audience cares so deeply at that particular point demonstrates why this isn't just a good but a great movie.

As if all of that -- perfect casting, brilliant writing and flawless tonal control -- weren't enough, Reitman's best, most audacious move turns out to be his choice to begin and end "Up in the Air" with interviews with the recently downsized, most of them real-life. These sequences give what could have been a pleasurable enough bagatelle a thoroughly unexpected air of gravitas and pathos.

"Up in the Air" is a timeless movie that's utterly of its time -- a movie of humor, heart and mind.

* * *

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.

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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