JASON REITMAN'S "Up in the Air" had me thinking that I haven't seen a young filmmaker with such astute command of Hollywood craft since Steven Spielberg.
Reitman, you probably know, is the son of producer-director Ivan Reitman ("Meatballs," "Ghostbusters"). He grew up on movie sets and around movie stars and, instead of ogling them, he apparently studied them. He knows how they work, and, in particular, he knows how their work reads to audiences.
One of Reitman's particular skills is to put the right actor in the right role - I remember watching "Juno" and being struck by how shrewdly cast it was. And Aaron Eckhart was perfect for Reitman's "Thank You For Smoking." I don't know how Reitman knew that, but it wasn't from watching his performance in "The Core."
In "Up in the Air," Reitman has his first big star in George Clooney, and uses him brilliantly, leveraging Clooney's maturing talent (and his image as an elusive bachelor) to play Bingham, a charming stranger who lives on the road, happily alone.
Or, rather, at 20,000 feet. Bingham is the premier hatchet man at a consulting firm that flies him around the country to tell folks they've been axed. He's the top man because he's so smooth, assured and adept at summoning fake sympathy, the soothing lie.
Or is he lying? In his motivational speeches, Bingham insists that people function best when they swim alone, like sharks. Maybe he truly believes it.
Maybe he truly believes that he's welcoming the laid-off to a better world - a world without obligation or responsibility. Bingham's eccentric beliefs, and Clooney's cheerful embodiment of them, allow "Up in the Air" to feel like a comedy, even as it shows us reel after reel of people losing their jobs.
"Up in the Air" then delivers an amusing irony. Bingham falls in something like love, with a woman (Vera Farmiga) who is his female mirror image - a contented, rootless road warrior.
Reitman concocts a wonderful scene of the two travelers picking each other up at an airport bar, comparing plastic and frequent-flier miles, sizing each other up, hoping to find someone who'll warrant the perfect, commitment-free one-night stand. The joke is that they commit to their commitment-free relationship.
Again, Reitman strikes gold in casting. Yeah, Farmiga, was good in "The Departed," but she shines in this glamorous, witty two-hander with Clooney - it's like watching the fifth pairing of some Golden Age screen couple.
The movie is so graceful, hip, glossy and fun, we almost don't notice that its background subject is the recent and ongoing Great Recession.
No matter what the glamorous stars are doing in the foreground, the movie also shows us an obsolete, industrial America giving way to a callous, casualty-strewn digital age.
To that end, Bingham gets saddled with a trainee, a comically icy young Ivy Leaguer (Anna Kendrick) who wants to replace guys like him with an Internet connection, so that people can be fired (cheaply) from a remote location.
The platonic Kendrick-Clooney chemistry is also good, and presented as comedy, but there is unexpected gravity to scenes wherein Kendrick's character - firing people face to face - learns that her system may be efficient, but it's inhumane.
You know without being told that some of the people she faces are real - non-actors, victims of actual layoffs. You can see it in their guileless faces, hear it in their untrained voices.
They add, or perhaps reveal, an element of melancholy that makes "Up in the Air" such a unique thing, and so shrewd.
"Up in the Air" takes quiet note of Bingham's (literally) lofty, privileged life - literally above it all, descending to deliver bad news to the gravity-bound. The movie's Bingham-eyed views of cities like St. Louis, literally looking down on them, are creepy. It's cold at high altitude, and you feel it in these shots.
The movie, without a lot of breast-beating, makes its point about an economy that's hard on the many, weighted in the favor of the few, some of whom produce little of any real value.
Or you can simply enjoy "Up in the Air" for the real value of seeing a charming star like Clooney at the top of his game.
There's plenty on the movie's frothy surface to keep you entertained, something that's true of all of Reitman's deceptively meaty movies. He's slick, and that's led to some snarky dismissals of Reitman as a Hollywood hand, a mere entertainer.
Still, if all Reitman can do is make really good Hollywood movies, then God bless him.
We certainly need more of those.