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Clooney, director Reitman show their talent with latest film 'Up in the Air'

Special Photo: Paramount. George Clooney stars as "termination facilitator" Ryan in "Up in the Air."

Special Photo: Paramount. George Clooney stars as "termination facilitator" Ryan in "Up in the Air."

Up in the Air (R)

4 out of 4 stars

With just three features to his credit, 32-year-old director Jason Reitman has eclipsed everything his father Ivan did in four decades and has firmly established himself as one of the world's premier filmmakers. Not since Orson Welles or Steven Spielberg has a director so young showed such immense talent and confidence. His movies aren't just merely good, they're perfect.

As with "Thank you for Smoking" and "Juno," Reitman has taken what, on paper, should appeal only to high-brow, art-house audiences and made it commercially viable -- without losing any of the edge. He's adapted Welles' angular sensibilities and applied Speilberg's knack for mass appeal to brilliant effect. It's hard to imagine that any adult could watch "Up in the Air" and not be somewhat moved and/or entertained.

Keeping little more than the skeletal blueprint of Walter Kirn's early 2001 novel, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner have added two touchy plot points (post 9/11 air travel and widespread unemployment) and made them, if not exactly fun to watch, thoroughly engrossing. As good as Kirn's book is, it was set in a rosier time not all that long ago when flying was a snap and everyone who wanted to work could find a job.

George Clooney takes the lead as Ryan, a guy who fires people for a living. When a company's HR people don't have the stomach to do it themselves, they call Ryan, who describes himself as a "termination facilitator." With his comforting, honey-rich baritone and pat, but convincing spiel, Ryan does his best to turn one of life's most disconcerting events into a gateway of personal growth. He succeeds far more than he fails and is considered practically indispensable by his boss Craig (Jason Bateman).

Ryan's company flies him all over the country to perform his duties, but when their bottom line starts getting squeezed by the tanking economy, Craig decides to put the brakes on air travel. As someone who is effectively addicted to accumulating frequent flyer miles, this hits Ryan right where he lives. It will also prevent him from regular romantic rendezvous' with fellow flyer Alex (Vera Farmiga).

Instead of face-to-face, Ryan will be doing his job via video conferencing, a concept embraced by Craig and new hire Anna (Natalie Keener), who is tenacious but still a little wet behind the ears. Not about to give up his plum, non-committal lifestyle without a fight, Ryan begins a methodical counter-insurgence.

Some folks will watch the movie and be completely unimpressed with Clooney's performance, accusing him of merely playing himself. Let's see ... a successful, smooth-talking, good looking guy with no desire whatsoever to get married. That's both Ryan and Clooney.

Clooney might not be everyone's idea of a great actor, but that's because he never looks like he's acting. That takes talent. Like Cary Grant and James Stewart before him, Clooney chooses his projects wisely and never, ever takes on roles that are beyond his range. He works smart, not hard. That takes brains.

Playing women with totally opposite approaches to life, career and romance, Farmiga and Keener follow Clooney's lead by lending their respective characters high levels of rich depth and sneaky nuance. Our perspectives of both of their characters change radically over the course of the film, and their journeys become just as important to us as Ryan's. Either or both women could easily receive Supporting Actress Oscar nominations.

Reitman and Turner take their biggest storytelling gamble with the last scenes, which, without giving anything away, are open-ended. However, unlike most movies that often unwisely choose not to offer a conclusion, the ending here does provide unmistakable closure. None of the characters' subplots are wrapped-up neatly with a bow, and neither they nor the audience know exactly where they're headed. Not knowing where you're going isn't ideal but is somewhat easier if you're smart enough to recognize where you've been and to learn from it. (Paramount)