"Up in the Air" is a nostalgic look at flying the friendly skies.

It is also much more. It is brilliant, witty and insightful. It's a pleasure to see an intelligently-satisfying film that speaks up to its audience.

The screenplay by Sheldon Turner ("The Longest Yard," 2005) and Jason Reitman, who also directs, was adapted from a book by Walter Kirn first published in 2001.

The movie has been updated for the post 9-11 Transportation Security Administration era of airplane passenger radar screening and shoe removal.

Seeing "Up in the Air" in the midst of heightened scrutiny, including full body scans, following the arrest of the alleged Christmas bomber, adds to the reality.

"Up in the Air" is also an all-too real look at the Great Recession when the Iceman cometh in the form of Mr. Downsize, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a gun-for-hire who fires employees. "There's a dignity to the way I do it," Bingham rationalizes.

While Bingham attempts to cushion the rough landing with severance pay, a strategy packet and reassuring words – it's an opportunity to be fired, he tells them – he's more concerned about stacking up 10 million frequent flyer miles on American Airlines.

He spends a lot of time in airport terminals because he terminates employees. Get the connection?

Bingham's motivational talks on "What's in Your Backpack," about his own kind of a Thoreau Airways philosophy, i.e., travel light, keeps him in demand and on the route to his goal.

Bingham is at home in the confines of an airline passenger compartment, airport lounge or hotel room, as is Alex (Vera Farmiga), who he befriends one night in a lounge.

Ironically, Bingham may find himself grounded when his boss (Jason Bateman) announces that a new transition specialist, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), will implement the Glocal (Global-Local) theory of management, which includes remote firing of employees via a video conference call.

In the movie, when Bingham delivers the bad news to terminated employees, many are real-life laid-off workers recruited by the film-makers in St. Louis and Detroit, A notable exception is actor J.K. Simmons. "Losing your job is like a death in the family," one says.

That's not to say "Up in the Air" isn't humorous.

The comedic moments elicit lifestyle recognition chuckles, rather than howls, as, for example, with physical comedy.

This is one of Clooney's best performances and should garner him an actor Oscar nomination. His face, demeanor and voice show a depth of character, awareness and in-the-moment believability comparable to screen greats such as Cary Grant.

Farmiga is disarmingly charming opposite Clooney and may receive a supporting actress Oscar nomination. Kendrick shows a self-assured command and range as a perky young professional with a heart of steel.

The screenplay has a smart specificity and conveys the poetry of loneliness. Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking," 2005; "Juno," 2007) may be nominated for director and adapted screenplay Oscars.

The cinematography by Eric Steelberg ("Juno"), with soothing shots of clouds, patchwork-quilt farmlands and towering cityscapes, serves to raise the dread that "Up in the Air" is, indeed, a high-wire act that cannot be sustained.

"Up in the Air": MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for language and some sexual content; Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance; Run Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes; Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Credit Readers Anonymous: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings sing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" during "Up in the Air" opening credits.

Box Office, Jan. 1: "Avatar" continued its hold in this world or any other, No. 1, three weeks in a row, with a phenomenal $68.3 million, $352.1 million.

"Avatar" set records for highest-gross on a New Year's weekend and highest-grossing third weekend ever. Among 2009 releases, "Avatar" is second only to "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," which grossed $402.1 million.

Internationally, "Avatar" has the fourth biggest gross ever and soon may be second only to director James Cameron's other gigantic blockbuster, "Titanic."

Box-office records for the combined releases were set for New Year's and Christmas weekends.

"Sherlock Holmes" continued at No. 2 for a second week, starring the dynamic duo of Robert Downey, Jr. as the British sleuth and Jude Law as his sidekick, Dr. Watson, with an outstanding $38.3 million, $140.6 million, two weeks.

"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," continued to animate the numbers, at No. 3, with an amazing $36.6 million, $157.3 million, two weeks.

"It's Complicated," at No. 4, is doing well for director Nancy Meyers and stars Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, $18.7 million, $59.1 million, two weeks.

"The Blind Side," at No. 5, confirms Sandra Bullock as 2009's box office champ, unseating George Clooney, $12.6 million, $209 million, seven weeks;

6. "Up in the Air" is still flying, $11.3 million, $45 million, five weeks; 7. "The Princess and the Frog," reaffirms the Disney old-school animation magic; $10 million, $86 million, six weeks; 8. "Did you Hear About the Morgans" continues the downward movie career spirals of Jennifer Anniston and Hugh Grant, $5.2 million, $25.6 million, three weeks; 9. "Nine," is taking its final Top 10 bow, $4.2 million, $14 million, three weeks; 10. "Invictus," though directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, is fading fast, $4.1 million, $30.7 million, four weeks

Unreel, Jan. 8: Amy Adams stars in "Leap Year," a romantic comedy in which her plans to propose marriage get detoured in Dublin. Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill star in "Daybreakers," a vampire-soaked fantasy saga set in 2017 when a researcher devises a plan to help re-supply depleted blood banks. Michael Cera stars in the raunchy teen comedy, "Youth in Revolt."

Four Popcorn Boxes Out of Five Popcorn Boxes