Maui Film Festival ended the first phase of FirstLight last Friday "Up in the Air."
The unique, year-end series of film screenings, in which festival director Barry Rivers manages to secure almost all the major contenders for Oscars, Golden Globes and other top film prizes, gave its audience a preview of this bittersweet romantic comedy, sure to land a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for its star, George Clooney.
As sad and sweet as it is darkly humorous, it follows the contrails of professional white-collar terminator Ryan Bingham (Clooney). He logs hundred of thousands of miles each year, flying across the heartland as a hired gun to fire employees whose bosses don't have the backbone to do it themselves.
George Clooney and Vera Farmiga are fellow travelers in the friendly skies of this bittersweet comedy.
Paramount Pictures photo
With his boss (Jason Bateman) cheerleading his employees that what's bad for General Motors is great for their company, Bingham is good at what he does. Under the cool detachment, he brings unexpected insight and bursts of empathy to the task of throwing the occasional life preserver to the victims he's just tossed over the rail.
The sky is his home. He negotiates airports like a ballet dancer, better than O.J. Simpson used to, back in his Hertz days. Bingham is the poster boy for plastic - picking up fellow traveler Vera Farmiga in an airport-hotel bar, he impresses her with the quantity, and quality, of credit cards he's packing.
Ryan's first-class-passenger outlook on life - knowing that being in motion is being alive - runs into some turbulence when his company hires top-of-her-class Cornell graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She impresses her boss with her Powerpoint plans to eliminate travel, by doing the whole firing thing online.
* "Up in the Air" stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman. Jason Reitman writes and directs. Rated R for language and some nudity, its running time is 1:49. It premiered at Maui Film Festival's FirstLight and will open in Maui theaters later this month.
Before putting her plan in place, though, she's assigned to trail along with Clooney for some on-the-job training.
With the realities of downsizing and layoffs like Grinches hanging over U.S. neighborhoods this holiday season, this doesn't exactly sound like the stuff of comedy.
But then again, writer-director Jason Reitman has a fondness for locating very human stories in volatile, polarized tinderboxes - first with a sympathetic portrait of a tobacco-industry lobbiest in "Thank You for Smoking," followed by the pregnant high-schooler who won the hearts of both sides of the abortion issue in "Juno."
The very likable Ryan Bingham provides the filmmaker with a face, and multifaceted psyche, to place right in the eye of the economic storm that has been told in front-page headlines and TV news lead stories for months.
The role of the suave executive who avoids any sort of commitment by flying 30,000 feet above it fits Clooney as perfectly as his wardrobe. Despite the matinee-idol looks, Clooney is at his best grappling with his own flaws, playing guys who want to do the right thing if they only had the slightest clue what that might be.
Following on the wry "The Men Who Stare at Goats" with the fantastic "Fantastic Mr. Fox" also playing, George is all over the animal kingdom this Oscar season.
Accompanied by wonderful aerial footage showing an America known all too well by frequent flyers, with "Up in the Air" he and his terrific co-stars create one of those movies that feels breezy when it's on screen, but digs somewhere deeper into your memory.
Full of contradictions, like the sterile yet comforting feeling airports exude, it breaks all the molds for romantic comedy.
As poignant as it is funny, as sad as it is hopeful, it is as compassionate as it is cynical. After all, frequent flyers know better than to be believe in fairy tales. They'll settle for an on-time arrival ... which "Up in the Air" makes, right in the heart.