Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) spends his life in the clouds– literally and figuratively. 322 of 365 days each year, he is flying across the country as a hired gun for corporate executives who don’t have the guts to fire people themselves. And through the years he has come to truly embrace this lifestyle, relishing it for all the perks it provides.

Not only does he get express service at every airport hotel and rental car counter in America, but he also gets to go through life with no strings attached– no permanent address (save a scarcely-used apartment in Omaha) and no real human contact of any substance.

He truly thrives by living only for himself, going so far as to lead frequent self-help seminars which compare family, relationships, and sentimental photographs to excess baggage which should be left at the curb.

But then, as is often the case, a woman (or two) has to go and mess everything up.

Clooney has never been better (which is saying a lot in the wake of the fantastic Michael Clayton) and director/screenwriter Jason Reitman keeps the “once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend” maxim going strong, fresh off brilliant turns helming Thank You for Smoking and Juno.

Up in the Air is merely one of the best movies of the year– with not a single contrived situation, line of syrupy dialogue, or stilted performance to be found. From the opening strains of the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings version of ‘This Land is Your Land’ through the Young MC ‘Bust a Move’ cameo to the closing chords of Kevin Rennick’s title song, there’s nothing that’s out of place, clichéd, or superfluous.

It’s highly entertaining, it’s expertly shot and edited, and the performances are all top-notch (including those pesky women– Anna Kendrick as the perky young colleague brought in to streamline the firing process and Vera Farmiga as the airport Hilton hook-up).

It’s not a drama, it’s not a comedy, and it’s not especially romantic (though there are equal measures of all three scattered throughout). It’s simply a slice of life, made even more timely by today’s economic climate.

Clooney plays Bingham with such suaveness and confidence that you wouldn’t have been surprised to several of his fire-ees lean over the table and give him a hug, even as they learn that their world is falling down around them. It’s only when he returns to his boyhood home for the wedding of his estranged sister (he’s the estranged one, not her) that we can finally begin to hope that he will come around and embrace *gasp* love… or at least embrace ‘really like’.

What could have easily been a schmaltzy story about a tin man getting his heart (or a zany comedy about life in airport hotel bars or a sappy drama about a man realizing his life’s worth) instead takes the best elements of each and turns Up in the Air into a entirely satisfying ride.

By the time the movie ends, Clooney has subtly transformed Bingham before our eyes, and we are happily in the aisle seat. It’s performance that will make even Clooney-haters appreciate great acting.

When movies this good come along, it’s a treat to just to sit back and enjoy them– living in the clouds for two hours yourself, wishing movies (and directors and stars) were like this more often.

4.5/5 stars