George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the AirUP IN THE AIR

Heading to Chicagoland on December 23, I spent the whole of my journey driving through a torrential and laughably unseasonable rainstorm, and the trek that normally takes two-and-three-quarter hours wound up taking close to four. Consequently, I missed out on dinner with my folks, arriving in town just in time to meet them for our planned evening screening of the new George Clooney movie.

Not five minutes into it, however, my road-trip irritation and growling stomach were completely forgotten. For Up in the Air is a tremendously well-titled film, a buoyant comedy and lightly melancholic drama that carries you aloft through equal measures of professionalism and inventiveness. Its subject -- the slow, painful downsizing of the American workforce -- couldn't be more heartrending (or more relevant). But director Jason Reitman pulls off a small miracle with his adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel; the film is steeped in sadness, yet presented with extraordinary style and tact, and continually winning good humor. It's a hopeful movie about apparent hopelessness.

Clooney's Ryan Bingham, like his recent Michael Clayton, is a professional clean-up man, though what his character cleans up here are the messes that his employers don't have the heart or stomach for: the firing of longtime staffers. Wafting through offices and airports with breezy confidence, the happily rootless Bingham travels the country delivering severance packages and a practiced look of empathy; he wants his confused and angry victims to know that he cares about and understands their suffering, right before he walks out the door, never to see them again. Bingham is, in short, the sort of jovial, recognizable monster that we're both immediately drawn to and are aching to see taken down a few notches, and both the comedy and drama of Up in the Air stem from his dealings with two temperamentally opposite women: Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flier with whom Bingham starts an affair, and Natalie (the exquisitely funny and poignant Anna Kendrick), the twentysomething tyro hired to make his downsizing firm more efficient, even if it means making Bingham himself irrelevant.

It would be unfair to describe what happens next, mostly because none of it happens quite the way you expect it will. Co-written with Sheldon Turner, Reitman's script is teeming with sensationally sharp, literate dialogue, but more than anything, Up in the Air reminds you of the value of a good story, one that's constantly evolving, and surprising, because it feels true -- because it has the unpredictable ebb and flow of life. Reitman's direction is every bit as controlled and graceful as his screenplay (watch the slow, upward tilt as Natalie discovers her proximity to an employee she's casually dismissing via her computer), and Clooney, in a fiendishly tricky role, is as compelling and nuanced as he's ever been.

It's a beautifully cadenced, hugely entertaining movie, from the snarky perfection of Jason Bateman to the quiet anguish of J.K. Simmons, and it deserves special accolades for giving The Departed's Farmiga -- finally -- the meaty, well-written role we fans have been eagerly awaiting. Dryly hysterical, naturally charismatic, and drop-dead gorgeous, Farmiga is easily the finest female sparring partner Clooney has yet been matched with onscreen, and the star's mile-wide grin whenever she's around suggests that he knows it. At one point, when her Alex chats with Bingham long-distance, the actress tells Clooney, "Just think of me as you, but with a vagina." Funny, that's how some of us have always thought of Vera Farmiga. Glad to see Hollywood's finally catching up.


Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr., and Rachel McAdams in Sherlock HolmesSHERLOCK HOLMES

Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes, like most of the director's films, is brutal, loud, and hyperactive, offering bare-knuckled brawls that split your eardrums and editing by way of a threshing machine. It's also the first installment in a sure-to-be lucrative franchise for Warner Bros., a demographic-defying blockbuster boasting pricey visuals and big-budget set pieces to put the James Bond series to shame. And so far as major Hollywood releases are concerned, it's all just a little bit gayer than Brokeback Mountain.

This isn't meant as a criticism. Truth be told, the hilariously overt love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name between Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes and Jude Law's Watson is the only remotely entertaining thing about Richie's testosterone-fueled reboot, a work so aggressively incoherent and flat-out dumb that it borders on the excruciating. (Any movie that attempts to score laughs through the reaction shots of a flatulent dog isn't exactly aiming for high-minded wit.) The only thing mysterious about Sherlock Holmes' plot -- which concerns a vengeful psychopath (Mark Strong) who has apparently risen from the dead -- is whether any audience member can possibly make heads or tails of it, and the emptily busy staging and insistently jaunty score (by Hans Zimmer) ensure that you're continually confused and annoyed. Even the lovely, charming Rachel McAdams is of no help, her initially promising spitfire eventually morphing into just another damsel in Victorian distress.

But every time you're ready to throw up your hands and declare Sherlock Holmes a total misfire, Downey and Law manage to momentarily salvage the proceedings with Holmes' and Watson's affectionately bitchy squabbles. Make no mistake: Their characters' comically playful romance isn't subtext here; it's text. The former roommates bicker over who borrowed whose clothes and who woke whom up at 3 a.m. and who forgot to let the dog out ("our dog," Holmes helpfully reminds Watson); the detective, not bothering to mask his jealously, routinely tries to sabotage his partner's wedding engagement, and forges an escape plan by removing Watson's belt. ("Don't let this excite you.") As performers, Downey and Law are too smart and naturally clever not to know what they're doing with their coy glances, sly half-grins, and tension-filled pauses, and they make the headache-inducing experience of Sherlock Holmes a little more bearable by consciously trashing its über-macho aspirations. With an unseen Professor Moriarty waiting in the wings, we're no doubt due for at least one sequel to this action-adventure behemoth, but if its main storyline involves Holmes' and Watson's attempts to adopt a Malaysian orphan, it'll likely make more sense -- and make for more enjoyable viewing -- than anything in Sherlock Holmes.


Meryl Streep and Steve Martin in It's ComplicatedIT'S COMPLICATED

Does any current movie star, male or female, exude more robust, unfettered happiness than Meryl Streep? In writer/director Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated, the actress plays baked-goods entrepreneur Jane Adler, torn between her affection for a sweet-natured architect (an intensely endearing Steve Martin) and her revitalized lust for her ex-husband (a peerlessly vain Alec Baldwin). It's a situation that could easily be mined for awkward embarrassment and pathos, and we certainly get that in Meyers' comedic, fairy-tale ode to late middle age. But we also get Streep choosing to giggle her way through her role, and this turns out to be an exceptionally wise and witty move. Jane constantly laughs at herself and the unexpected, ridiculous circumstances she finds herself in, and Streep, a genius at mood and complex emotional shadings, allows you to read the carefully crafted web of emotions behind her cackles, chuckles, and snorts. She delivers a dazzling collage of incredulity, amusement, panic, and deep satisfaction, but more than anything, she delivers joy -- that of a woman who long ago gave up hope of surprising herself, and that of a profoundly gifted star who is now surprising us, and perhaps herself, in ways that none of us might've anticipated.

Much of It's Complicated defies belief -- Jane's modest cookie-and-muffin eatery seems to have afforded her a country estate that Hugh Hefner would envy -- and some of the director's slapstick staging makes you want to recoil. (We're even given a gender-switching reprise of the scene in Meyers' Something's Gotta Give in which a character's nudity causes uncontrollable fits of shrieking.) Yet Streep is so fantastically spirited and sexy and smart here that she turns whatever complaints you have about the movie into mere quibbles. Can this possibly be the same performer who, in the last millennium, was America's go-to gal for cinematic tragedy and bereavement? Recently, though, Streep has more often been cast as a magnificently vibrant life force, and following her first-rate comic turns in Adaptation, A Prairie Home Companion, The Devil Wears Prada, and, perhaps best of all, Julie & Julia, we're now treated to this deeply empathetic, wondrously touching, and divinely funny turn. Its title may be It's Complicated, but Streep, bless her heart, makes the art of screen acting here look as simple, and as pleasurable, as can be.

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