(Rated R for sexual scenes, profanity): From the start you know that director Jason Reitman has the right stuff to develop Walter Kirn's novel into a silky smooth comedic drama that goes down like good Scotch.
The opening montage reminds us what we detest about commercial flying these days - from the moment one enters an airport to lose all sense of decision-making to the controlling directions involving shoes, body check, etc. - all the things our hero Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) loves. In fact, he's so proficient he finds cleverly devious ways to make the challenges fun. And he says so in voice-over, as he takes a flight to perform what for him is just a job, for which he has become perfectly suited. He fires people.
With panache & euphemisms, Bingham doesn't tell people they're fired; he says they're being prepared for a change in venue. Along the way he meets up with a charming woman (Vera Farminga), Alex, who spends almost as much time in the air as he, who finds a compatibility with him ("Think of me as you, only with a vagina.") and a suitable bed partner during their hotel stays.
Enter Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young dismissal neophyte learning the ropes from Bingham; eventually she admires his system but lacks his expertise. A quick learner, though, she's ready to solo in no time.
Meanwhile, things turn romantic between Bingham & Alex, and just when it seems the comedy will shift to slushy romance, a surprise awakening dashes dreams as the real reason for the film is delivered with a telling blow.
Before making the film, to heighten the modern reality in the labor world, Reitman, who'd interviewed over a hundred recently laid off workers, spread the results through the film, revealing honest, unforgettable faces of earnest laborers that suggest this isn't a love story after all, nor is it simply the bio of a man who prefers flying, though he insists, "That's my home, up in the air, and at the time he actually seems to believe it. But one discovers he actually is, unlike Natalie, "trapped in a cocoon of self banishment," totally devoid of feelings for the fired people - all of whom react in various heart-breaking fashion.
Reitman, who made two promising, quirky movies ("Thanks for Smoking," "Juno") is more assured here, guiding his cast through a seamless plot, allowing his characters to gradually reveal themselves nakedly, to their souls. But it is Clooney who will be remembered as the glib, assured, charmer with a confident voice of melted butter, even as he explains to Natalie: "We take people that are most fragile - and then set them adrift."
Ms. Farminga, with her blend of soft sultriness with hard as a rock realism, possesses the refreshing screen qualities of a young Lauren Bacall - a perfect foil to her Bogart. Anna Kendrick is equally capable, starting off as a neophyte candidate to the harsh realities of their business, then developing into something more human as she observes & matures.
On through the entire cast, all carefully scripted by the director (with pro Sheldon Turner) & created with unerring deftness - right to the title song, heard during final credits as an interesting surprise.
Rounding out a model ensemble among the crew are Eric Steelberg as director of photography (including his stunning shots of various cities from the air), composer Rolfe Kent & editor Dana E. Glauberman - brought together by production designer Steve Saklad. It's 110-minutes of fresh entertainment, a worthy Oscar contender in nearly every category. (Grade: A)