'Up in the Air' flies at Oscar altitude

When Oscar decided to open the best-picture category to 10 from five, it was clear that some films would be afterthoughts. Up in the Air, though, would have made even the smaller list.

It is not without its detractors, and for good reasons, but it has a lot to offer.

In Jason Reitman's film, Kentucky native George Clooney's corporate downsizer, Ryan Bingham, mostly soars above the hurt and woe he causes when he tells people that they are losing their jobs. Smart, likable and not completely uncompassionate, he just doesn't want to be involved. Ryan's biggest dream is to make the 10-million-mile club in flying, as if that will magically mean something.

We meet him while he is doing what he does best: trying to convince the downsized that the glass is half full even as he's taking the rest of the water and dousing their hopes as he tries to achieve the one goal he's really there for — to get them quietly out the door.

So it is with mixed feelings that we view Ryan's coming woes. After many of us have seen the real pain from the many layoffs in this economy, it's pretty hard to root for the guy with the ax, no matter how adroit. Then, again, he is Clooney, one of Hollywood's most charming guys since Cary Grant.

Up in the Air, much like its title, never touches down long enough to become one thing. In some ways it's a look at America in uncertain times. It's part weird romantic comedy, part existential parable. It's certainly well acted, with Oscar nominations for Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. The script by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, is smart and funny and the direction by Reitman (Juno) doesn't glamorize Ryan's life despite his high-flying style.

Despite almost liking Clooney's Ryan in the end, what we're left with is all those images of people and their shocked looks as they are being fired.

Up in the Air is $29.98; $39.99 on Blu-ray.