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Originally published December 3, 2009 at 3:00 PM | Page modified December 3, 2009 at 6:16 PM

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Movie review

'Up in the Air' gets high marks for originality and poignancy

A review of "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. It's a corporate not-quite-comedy, not-quite-romance that, when it works, works like gangbusters.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Up in the Air,' with George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Jason Reitman, from a screenplay by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn. 109 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Meridian.

MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" defies easy categorization: It's a comedy that's often very sad, a drama that'll make you laugh out loud, and a romance that doesn't go where big-studio romances usually do. It's a star vehicle for George Clooney, but it's also an ensemble piece, giving a bright, shiny role to the little-known Anna Kendrick (who will be little known no more). It's a timely tale of job loss and economic upheaval, at times hidden behind screwball-comedy dialogue. And it isn't perfect, but when it works — which is most of the time — it works like gangbusters.

Clooney, his basso purr of a voice in fine form, is Ryan Bingham, a slick fellow who makes his living flying around the country firing people. A corporate downsizing expert whose rarely occupied apartment is blandness incarnate (his fridge contains only airline-size drink bottles, like a minibar), he loves the efficiency of his life: the swift click of a hotel key card; the comfort of a first-class plane seat; the security of knowing that he's got everything he needs in his perfectly organized carry-on.

Two women, however, soon rattle Ryan's smoothness. Alex (Vera Farmiga) is a fellow road warrior who bonds with Ryan in a hotel bar as they flirt in the language of frequent travelers. ("I bet it's huge," she breathily murmurs. She's referring, of course, to his mileage total.)

These two seem made for each other, and soon Ryan's a little more entangled than he meant to be. And his colleague Natalie (Kendrick), fresh from college and determined to make her mark, is changing the workplace with her ideas for something that she calls remote downsizing and Ryan calls "firing people over the Internet."

Kendrick has a chin as determined as Reese Witherspoon's, and she knows how to use it — she steals the movie from Clooney and Farmiga, which is no small feat.

Her Natalie marches through airports and offices like a miniature force of nature, ponytail waving and posture erect, like she's trying to take up more space. She's unapologetically ambitious, but is terrified that her careful plans for a perfect life may go awry. "I'm 23," she wails, upon hearing unexpected news from her boyfriend. "I was supposed to be driving a Grand Cherokee by now."

Reitman smoothly takes us through an array of airports, office suites (some grimly empty) and midprice hotels; if there's an ugly, bland sameness to the surroundings, it's certainly not inaccurate. We get a burst of color on a side trip to the Midwestern wedding of Ryan's sister (Melanie Lynskey, effervescently sweet), shot like a home video in warm reds and pinks. Otherwise, it's all navy suits, beige wall-to-wall and white hotel bathrobes, which Ryan and Alex wear like a uniform.

That Ryan eventually begins to find his soul is not surprising; that Reitman relies a little too heavily on folky pop songs (he did it in "Juno," too) isn't either. But what is surprising, and charming, is the way "Up in the Air" works, despite having a few too many plots and not enough endings.

The anonymous faces of the people being fired resonate, along with the better-known faces of the gifted cast. We need work, and we need each other, says this movie, often poignantly; it's impossible to disagree.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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