Movies featuring waggish, big-chinned A-list actor George Clooney always attract audiences, if not acclaim, but his latest film is doing both. "Up in the Air" has made a surprise dash to become an early front-runner for the Academy Awards--in its opening weekend, no less. The film is adapted from a novel of the same name and directed by Jason Reitman, the man behind indie hits "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking." On Thursday, the film was named the year's best by the National Board of Review--an especially telling honor as the last two winners also went on to claim the Oscars for Best Picture. What accounts for the film's runaway critical acclaim? Reviewers offer several theories:

  • It's Tailor-Made for the Oscars At Moviefone, Jack Mathews says that few could have predicted just how well "Up in the Air" would go over, but that it has all the ingredients to make a strong Oscar run: "'What are Up in the Air's Oscar bona fides?' you may ask. Well, it is top-heavy in the areas that make Academy voters think of it as a contender. It has a serious contemporary subject, a terrific script adapted (by Reitman and Sheldon Turner) from a well-regarded book (by Walter Kirn) and showy performances by a past Oscar winner (George Clooney) and an actress who's due (Vera Farmiga). It is also directed by a filmmaker on a rocket-fast trajectory."
  • Perfect Blend of New and Old Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman calls the film a 'rare gem,' lauding its accuracy in depicting the 'new, systemized America' and the country's economic struggles. However, his main point is that they just don't make them like they used to:
Here are a few of the kinds of movies that I wish Hollywood made more often (like, you know, two or three times a year): a drama that connects to an audience because it taps, in a bold and immediate way, into the fears and anxieties of our time; a romantic comedy in which the dialogue pings with stylish wit and verve; a film that keeps surprising us because its characters keep surprising themselves. The beauty of "Up in the Air" is that it's all those things at once….light and dark, hilarious and tragic, romantic and real. It's everything that Hollywood has forgotten how to do; we're blessed that Jason Reitman has remembered.
  • Clooney Kills as a Chronic Jet-Setter Writing for the blog Television Without Pity, Zach Oat argues that Clooney's performance is key. He walks readers through the star's previous roles as various white-collar professionals: "Because of the soul-crushing nature of all of these jobs, there came a point in each film where we got to see Clooney's character have a breakdown during which he questioned the very fabric of his life, be it high thread-count cotton or a coarse burlap. That moment eventually comes in Up in the Air for Ryan Bingham…Ryan has been flying from town to town for so long that he has a system for packing, a system for going through security and a system of 'living' that consists solely of hotels, rental cars, expensed meals and airport lounges….when our movie opens, he wouldn't have it any other way, which is why he's pissed when he hears that they're going to make him do his job over the Internet to save money."
  • It's Populist Without Being Patronizing Dan Newman, a critic for the Georgetown Voice, appreciates the director's decision to include footage of authentic interviews with America's unemployed: "Although only 22 made it into the final cut of the film, they speak candidly about what it’s like to lose a job in a struggling economy. Some rage and scream, others break down crying on camera." He is similarly heartened to see that the film doesn't sugarcoat the harsh realities many of the nation's jobless now face:
Up in the Air does not take the easy way out—blandly extolling the unparalleled virtues of a family. Again and again, any character in the film that chooses family over professional fulfillment ends up disappointed. Reitman is not necessarily trying to say that family is less important than American culture would have us believe, just that a job is more important than Hollywood has told us. The film insists that it’s okay—healthy, even—to derive a sense of self-worth or self-identity from your career.
  • It's a  Model for Hollywood's Survival  EW'sOwen Gleiberman says that the movie industry should take special note of "Up in the Air's" slim budget, a special achievement considering the "A-list talent involved." As he explains: "The reason I dote on the budget is that Up in the Air is such an exquisitely conceived and executed dramatic comedy that it stands as a shining example of something: At a time when Hollywood, for all its profit, is quaking in its economic boots over The Future (the transition to digital, the competition from rival media, the siphoning off of home viewers), the movie demonstrates, loudly and clearly, what can be done for a relatively minor, almost throwaway amount of money. What can be done? In a word, miracles."