It is altogether possible that I might have almost liked Up in the Air if it had come as just a no-frills, "don't stop me if you've heard this one" romantic comedy, and not an unstoppable awards season juggernaut. But it didn't and I don't.

First point of clarification: I still don't think I would have been tremendously enthusiastic about the film, or even positive about it, because it's kind of fucking odious in a lot of ways. Not the least of which is its calculation that you can put George Clooney in anything and let him turn the Clooney on, and the result will be uncut liquid magic. A calculation that is all the more irritating for being largely true: if you just settle in and let the actor's movie star charm lap at your toes like warm ocean water, Up in the Air is doubtlessly a whole lot of breezy fun. And here is at least part of the problem: it is such breezy fun that it becomes apparent that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea that they were telling a story which pisses right in the eye of the huge proportion of the American workforce that is currently unemployed. Maybe I'm just extra-sensitive, being part of that number. We're going to call that my full disclosure for the review.

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who fires people for a living. His company, CTC, is in the business to send representatives across the country to deal with the unpleasant task of letting people know that their services are no longer required by their employer, usually doing this to a great many individuals all at once; Bingham is extremely good at his job and he likes it, not because he is some kind of emotional sadist but because he understands how to be the anchor for these people at the single worst instant of their lives. He may not be there to help them with the wreckage, but he knows how to hold their hand at the impact.

And that's pretty much that. Having elected that this should be their scenario (the Walter Kim novel upon which the film is based, it must be noted, was published long before the current economic crisis), co-adapters Jason Reitman (who directs, as well) and Sheldon Turner can think of absolutely nothing interesting to say about a man whose job is putting people out of jobs. Oh, I take that back, there is the well-publicised little thing that Reitman did, where he filmed individuals in a number of cities talking about having just been fired, allowing them to address him as if he were the man who'd let them go - that is, allowing them to address Ryan Bingham, although he is not real, and they have really been fired. Reitman then assembled all these interviews into little montages at the beginning and end, and once somewhat earlier than midway, and I am absolutely certain that he felt that he was doing something noble and good by giving the downtrodden a voice. Except for two things, which both reduce this very honest attempt at social commentary to the level of gimmickry, the worst kind of bad joke: first, the real people are intercut with staggeringly distracting cameos from the likes of Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons; second, all three montages are used for no purpose other than to prop up a tired and altogether typical story of a man who has spent his whole adult life living alone - by his conscious choice - who just needs that special lady and a spunky truth-telling sidekick to make him realise that the only thing which can make you happy is to surround yourself with loved ones, and especially, to get married. The movie's twisty ending I will not spoil, other than to say that it is a hideous violation of character logic, and carries this "marry or you will never stop suffering" theme to absurdly tragic heights.

Blithely heteronormative movies are ten a penny, of course, and not really anything to get worked up about, unless you want to spend your life in a constant state of indignation (and if that's what you want, more power to you. Do you know why I say this? Because I, unlike the makers of Up in the Air, am not bothered by people who spend their lives in pursuit of goals that I do not share or understand). What makes Up in the Air so tremendously irritating is its swagger, its absolutely fucking smugness about heteronormativity. "Here's a pair of people who are having quite a lot of time meeting up in random cities and screwing like rabid animals for one night at a time," the movie declares, "and as you can see, they are both altogether happy in their lives. How about we see if we can't screw it up for them?" It's the way that the movie puts so much effort into proving that Bingham and his female counterpart, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), have put a lot of thought into becoming the people they are, and have decided that they are completely happy being that way, and YET, it just takes one pissy 23-year-old reeling from a break-up to show how desperately empty their lives be.

Nor does it help the movie's argument that the contrary position is being held by a silver-tongued devil like Clooney, while the pissy 23-year-old is played by Anna Kendrick, instantly (sadly) recognisable as the bitchy friend from Twilight, in a tremendously shallow performance that's all about a tart tongue and quick flickers of sorrow bursting out; Clooney and Farmiga positively mop the floor with her in a rare example of a tremendously well-done scene in which the two adults calmly explain their philosophies as the young woman sputters and spits. I have little affection for Farmiga - minimally, the taint of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not so easily washed clean - but her work in this one scene is potent enough, subtle and wise, that it almost justifies the odd cult following the actress seems to have. And Clooney, well, he's Clooney: his performance in Up in the Air certainly does not stretch him (Fantastic Mr. Fox finds him in much more interesting waters), but we never complained that Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable didn't stretch themselves, so why make such an argument against Clooney? He plays his persona, and that is enough.

That I find the film supercilious, shallow and obnoxious certainly leaves me alone on the dance floor, but I'm used to that feeling, especially around Jason Reitman, one of the most bizarrely over-appreciated new directors of the last five years: his debut feature, Thank You For Smoking, is a callow and self-contradictory political satire, and while I did honestly enjoy Juno, I would be extremely hard-pressed to credit anything specific that Reitman of all people did to make that movie pop. If there's a reason that people find him an exciting new talent, it has not at all revealed itself to me: certainly, it cannot be his decidedly pedestrian sense of composition and shot progression, nor can it be his adoration of anonymous indie rock (where the soundtrack to Juno at least made character sense, there is no reason whatsoever for Up in the Air to possess the music that it does); I pray that it is not his palpable fear that the audience might not "get it" if he doesn't spell out the film's message in big, easy to read words. There is a particular moment near the end, when the indie rock and the pedestrian aesthetic and the hammer-handed storytellingcombine in a montage that ought to embarrass the director far more than it apparently does: inexplicable, unpremeditated hand-held cinematography plus some outstandingly awful "snappy" editing, all in service to the keystone moment in the film's deeply flawed message about giving up what makes you actually happy in favor of what seems to make your family and neighbors happy.

The film is obvious; it is reductive; it is cloying; it is in fact devoid of any particular merit that I can perceive, other than the fact that it's never a punishment to watch George Clooney onscreen. Just as I never buy that Bingham is a lonely soul, whose love of air travel and hotels masks a pit of the deepest pain, so do I not care that he is able to clamber out of this pit that I don't perceive and find the joy in human connections. Frankly, everything that he says when he's being an "asshole" makes a lot more sense to me than the lukewarm sentiment that Reitman and Turner force him into. And while I don't doubt that my peevish response to Up in the Air is at least partially motivated by everybody else's piles of love for the film, I still refuse to admit that it's okay to heap that kind of praise on a film that treats the wracking terror of living in today's economy as the pretext for the kind of "vapid man finds redemption" story that was old hat when sound cinema was still a gimmick.