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There's a moment somewhere near the middle of Up In The Air when you realise that this is not the film you expected to see. The silvery comedy that you came for has been nudged aside by the unexpected bedrock of despair on which it sits. Perhaps it's not so surprising from the director of Thank You For Smoking and Juno – after all Reitman has shown himself to be the consummate practitioner of paradox and this tartly flavoured romance about disengaged engagement finds him in his heartland.

Ryan (George Clooney at his award-winning best) lives a perfectly air-conditioned life of airports and hotel suites in order that those without gumption can hire him to fire their staff. Ryan is good at his job and loves the benefits – the order and isolation of living from a suitcase. It stops him from thinking. “Like my mother, I stereotype,” he says. “It's faster”. But when Head Office is convinced that online firing is the future, Ryan has to rethink his own, one likely to be much closer to the ground than he ever thought possible.

Reitman's gift for snappy dialogue and is the cornerstone of Up In The Air. He's also cheerfully comfortable with long scenes and silence, allowing humour and pathos to deliver itself up naturally. It turns an ordinary scene in which the leads have a seemingly ordinary conversation in an ordinary hotel bar, quite extraordinary indeed. It reveals Reitman's other gift, the desire and conviction to let his female characters have as much presence as Clooney. The film is altogether stronger for it.

As the narrative plays toward an elusive finale, Up In The Air shows an air of sophistication seldom seen from Hollywood. It may not conclude as anticipated, nor be the comedy you'd hoped to see, or the biting satire it alludes to. But in all regards it is a sustained bolt of first rate entertainment that tackles the terror of facing up to this modern reality in unpredictable ways.

moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks