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Blue Sky Thinking: George Clooney rebrands unemployment for Up In The Air 

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In this sure-fire Oscar contender, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man hired by companies to fire their employees. Or rather George Clooney plays George Clooney as a man criss-crossing the country to let people go in the smoothest and easiest way possible. The film begins, and ends, with a collage of actors and non-actors responding to being told that their position is no longer available. Clooney breaks the news, takes their abuse and then offers consolation with platitudes about the possibilities that await them once they cast off the chains of full-time employment.

Some ask in exasperation, who are you? To which, we always expect him to reply, "I'm the movie star George Clooney and I'll be using all the winking, side-smiling and head-tilting charm I've got to make you feel a whole lot better about the economic recession." And this actually works for the full run time, plus an hour or so.

Up In The Air is one of those films for our times that make the Academy happy. It is also as "feel good" as last year's winner. As with Slumdog Millionaire, Up in the Air is rooted in a disturbing reality. Here, mass unemployment, poverty, homelessness and no foreseeable end to it all, there the huge chasm in the rich-poor divide - there's an eagerly positive spin to the ending. Yet where Danny Boyle's style was viscerally exhilarating, Reitman's movie is laid-back to the point of being soporific.

Clooney is like Edward Norton in Fight Club but much happier and well rested. He illustrates the "tiny life" of constant air travel with his single carry-on shuttled from hotel to hotel and, as a motivational speaker, even extols the virtues of burning up all accumulated baggage to start afresh without surplus possessions or unnecessary emotional ties. Clooney is loyal to hotel chains, car rental companies and airlines, not people, and is rewarded with first-class service. He very much enjoys the simulated sincerity, and tries to put on a just as genuine, heartfelt performance for the newly jobless.

Although current, this film has little interest in reality. It is written, edited and parceled out with sleek efficiency. Everything looks so good and sounds so good and Reitman sells us on his warm and fuzzy ideas about downsizing. George Clooney isn't firing people and sending them spiraling into foreclosure, homelessness and ill health, he's setting them free. Ryan Bingham believes this, and so do we. But just like the dazzled former employees walking away from the smiling terminator, it's only when we get home that we realize we've been screwed.

In the concluding montage unemployed non-actors describe how great it is that they now get to see their families for forty hours more a week. Full-time work is often endured rather than enjoyed, but the "freedom" of unemployment can only be sold as a positive, a chance to change your life, if all basic human needs are taken care of, that is - food, housing, medical care. In a country where losing your job can mean losing absolutely everything, Reitman's suggestion that the jobless are lucky to finally have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams is very rich even when this message is delivered in the cozy tones of George Clooney.

Up In The Air ★★★✩✩

Starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga. Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner. Rated R

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