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When everything falls into place, movies have a unique ability to tap into the zeitgeist. Years after their release, one can look back at certain films to get a real sense of the era.

Such is the case with “Up in the Air,” an outstanding comic drama that is perfectly in sync with its time.

Based on a novel by Walter Kim, “Up in the Air” makes it three-for-three for filmmaker Jason Reitman, the main creative force behind “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno.” Not only does Reitman handle the directing chores, but has also co-written the incisive script with Sheldon Turner (“The Longest Yard”).

George Clooney (“Men Who Stare at Goats”) stars as Ryan Bingham, a “career transition counselor.” In other words, he’s an independent contractor who takes the heat off of corporate honchos by firing people on their behalf.

In a time of financial crisis, Ryan’s business is booming. He happily travels around the country, racking up thousands of frequent flier miles and cementing his elite status with both hotels and airlines.

His career goal is to become one of a truly exclusive group, reaching the storied 10 million mile club. According to legend, the few professional travelers who have achieved this rank receive unparalleled rewards.

But in order to obtain this objective, Ryan has become a loner, with no family, no roots and no serious relationships…and that’s just fine with him.

But Ryan’s world is shaken when he discovers that his boss (Jason Bateman from “Extract”) is considering a new business model, the brainchild of a young new employee named Natalie (Anna Kendrick from “Twilight”). She shows that the company can save on travel expenses by firing people via the Internet.

But Ryan insists that his effective personal touch can’t be replaced by electronic technology. His boss decides to send the naive Natalie along with Ryan on his next series of trips to get her feet wet.

Natalie’s presence, as well as an affair he’s having with a fellow frequent flier named Alex (Vera Farmiga from “Orphan”), causes Ryan to reassess his priorities even as he closes in on his lifetime goal.

Clooney’s comic timing is as sharp as a tack, but the humor never comes at the expense of characterization. This is a beautifully honed performance.

But the real star of “Up in the Air” is Reitman, who shows that he’s a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. This is a talent who has his finger on the American pulse. (R) Rating: *****

* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it

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