The box-office biggies for 2009 have led to speculation that the day of the 'star' is over, given that it was effects rather than big names which drove Avatar and the second Transformers movie, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.
That flick didn't have any people in it at all and the surprise package of the year, the excellent comedy The Hangover, wasn't exactly packed with people pulling down vast fees. Against all that, though, cinema will always need proper stories and proper stars and in Up in the Air we have a pretty good story wrapped around an exceptional star.
Based on a 2001 novel by Walter Kim, Jason Reitman's movie focuses on the dark side of corporate America. In this case the central character Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for a firm which specialises in downsizing other firms and while he describes himself as a 'career transition counsellor', what he actually does for a living is travel around the country sacking people.
He travels a lot in fact. So much so that he effectively lives on airplanes and in airport hotels to the extent that he has no real home and very little by way of an emotional life. Clooney is perfect in the role of a man determined to keep the real world at arm's length but who's charming enough to make the most of whatever fleeting opportunities come his way on his travels. On a stopover in Dallas he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman who spends almost as much time travelling on business as he does and they strike up a no-frills relationship.
However, there's trouble brewing in Bingham's world when his boss (a suitably reptilian and ruthless Jason Bateman) brings on board a new scheme to effectively downsize the downsizers by firing people via computer link so he sends the new method's instigator Natalie (Anna Kendrick) on the road with Ryan to see how the old ways worked. Thus we have the classic old school/new school conflict added to the movie's mix, with Natalie's cold-hearted, almost callous approach to her task contrasting sharply with Ryan's more humane approach, even though they're aiming for exactly the same outcome.
For some strange reason Up in the Air has been nominated in the comedy section for this weekend's Golden Globes and while it does have some lovely light touches, it's hardly a laugh-fest.
Throughout the film Reitman steers the plot towards the mainstream every now and again but swerves away at the last moment, keeping the audience on its toes and dressing up what is essentially a drama about a man leading a sad and empty existence in the frills normally associated with left-field rom-coms.
Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are excellent in their well-written roles but the movie belongs to Clooney, who takes the fine material he's been given to work with and really makes it soar. HHHHI