Up in the Air opens Wednesday in select theaters

Maybe Diablo Cody wasn’t really the brains behind Juno after all.

With just three feature films now under his belt, Jason Reitman has ensconced himself as a talented, unique filmmaker and torchbearer for the seriocomic lineage. For today’s movie audiences, he is the mature antidote to the cut-rate knockoffs of Judd Apatow’s comedies of arrested development. More broadly, Reitman brings to mind such past masters of the form as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, who were all adept at depicting love in dark and cynical settings.

The Reitman formulaas best it can be distilledconsists of quirky romances set within tableaus informed by weighty social topics, whether it is the tobacco industry in Thank You For Smoking, teenage pregnancy in Juno or mass unemployment wrought by corporate downsizing and cost leadership in his latest, Up in the Air, a film that has already garnered widespread honors and Oscar buzz.

The intelligence of Up in the Air lies in its ironies. George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a smooth-talking veteran “career transition counselor,” a euphemism for being a hired gun paid to handle employee layoffs by corporate bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. Ryan and his company rely upon the misery of others for their own success. In this most impersonal of settings, the jocular Ryan specializes in providing the illusion of a human touch. Walter Kirn, author of the 2001 novel from which the film is loosely adapted, says in the film’s notes that “Ryan is like a masseur who comes in and sort of rubs your shoulders while rolling your desk chair into the elevator.”

Personally, however, Ryan is an isolato who embraces the nomadic lifestyle that comes with his profession. Living hub-to-hub, he has mastered the nuances of air travel, from choosing the proper luggage to gauging the fastest check-in line, and navigates terminals with the agility of Baryshnikov. But spiritually, Ryan is as vapid as his spartanly decorated home apartment: He eschews deep personal entanglements or ambitions, his sole dream being to finally reach the rarified air of 10 million frequent-flyer miles.

It is no accident, then, that romance falls his way during a layover in a hotel bar with a fellow traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga)one thing leads to another after they begin comparing platinum club cards. Their burgeoning relationship leads Ryan to reassess his views on love and companionship. Meanwhile, he also finds his professional life in tumult, thanks to a brash neophyte, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who sells Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) on a cost-cutting method of video conferencing that will enable terminations to be handled without Ryan or his co-workers ever having to leave their Omaha, Neb., home office.

Fearing this threat to his airborne existence, Ryan takes Natalie on a cross-country firing expedition in an effort to teach her the folly of her system. At the same time, Ryan struggles to cope with his growing feelings for Alex and the pressure to attend the impending nuptials of his kid sister (Melanie Lynskey). Facing midlife, Ryan starts to wonder if it’s finally time to grow up.

Ryan’s firing sessions are the film’s most tense, affecting scenes. Reitman and screenwriter Sheldon Turner occasionally struggle to balance their populist and satirical impulses by playing too clever with the jobless zeitgeist, a deficit aggravatednot alleviatedby the fact that Reitman fills these scenes with real people who’ve recently lost their jobs. This sort of self-congratulatory casting carries an unsavory aroma similar to the search for destitute extras for Slumdog Millionaire or Joe Wright’s The Soloist. However, the film exonerates itself from the charge of exploitation by giving these extras screen time during the closing credits, where they reveal more information about their situations.

Up in the Air hearkens back to such worldly comic masterpieces as Wilder’s The Apartment, Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Clooney flashes his trademark retro leading-man charisma, the talented Kendrick would feel right at home in a screwball comedy, and Farmiga radiates the sophisticated sexuality of classic film noir divas. And just when you think you’ve got the film’s flight plan figured out, Reitman takes an unexpected detour toward a more open-ended, melancholy denouement that evokes the title of this timeless and timely film.