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Master of American cinema Whether actor, director or political activist, George Clooney does it all with pure charm and amiability

Don't tell me how much of a traditional movie star George Clooney is. Or how historically minded he is either.

He's something new in American movies. In fact, we've never quite had a movie star like him before.

Yes, it's true that American movies have been around for a long time. So God knows we've had movie stars who will, no doubt help define "suave" for all eternity. (Cary Grant anyone? William Powell?) And we've had an abundance of those too who wear their social and political consciences on their sleeve. So too have we had movie stars who function quite brilliantly, thank you, as directors.

And while we're at it, there've been more than a few who appealed almost equally to men and women -- whom women swooned over (one woman I know once told me without shame she'd be happy to drink Clooney's bath water) -- and men thought it would be cool to hang out with.

What we've never quite had before is all of those in one package, tied up with a ribbon of pure charm and amiability.

Clooney, at this stage, doesn't just make appearances at things like the Toronto International Film Festival, he brings the very institution of American movie stardom with him wherever he goes. Everything that might be good about it anyway.

He is, without question, the leader in a whole different kind of wised-up, politically liberal movie stardom (Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, etc.). They are matter-of-factly activist and skate as playfully as possible atop the routine baloney that surrounds their lives and fills the publicity envelope in which they exist.

Clooney had two films at the Toronto Film Festival, where I just spent four days. The one I saw -- Jason Reitman's stingingly smart romantic comedy "Up in the Air" -- confirms that George Clooney is THE movie star of our era in a way that goes way beyond mere popularity. For the second time now (at the Toronto Festival, too), he's taken a role where an ultra-competent hustler doing the filthiest of our society's upscale dirty work somehow manages to remain sympathetic while revealing a terrible bankruptcy somewhere within. The last time was in the exceptional "Michael Clayton."

"Up in the Air" is a great film comedy on the same track.

In fact, the real big news coming out of all the films I saw in Toronto is that American film comedy is not only alive and well but is, in fact, flourishing brilliantly.

You have to subtract from the equation all of the summertime comedy money machines -- both those that worked and those that didn't. In other words, eliminate all the pandering Apatows and pseudo-Apatows, all the cutie-pie vehicles, all the horny teen tickles and even the latest Tyler Perry concoction to become the No. 1 film last weekend.

After the Toronto Festival, you realize that there are people making truly great American film comedies in 2009 that could probably have only come out of our era.

In Reitman's adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel "Up in the Air," Clooney plays the slickest ax-man in all of America, a human thresher flying all over the country and, upon touching down, firing everyone at local businesses in St. Louis, Milwaukee, etc., that don't have the stones to fire people themselves. In his status-driven life and infinite hollow professionalism, he manages to preserve just enough vestige of humanity to give himself a semi-delusional self-respect.

And then, in the guise of a gorgeous woman who's his spiritual twin (Vera Farmiga), revisionist truth comes to call.

It's Clooney, again in this November film, throwing us in the moral universe of "Michael Clayton," and it's so good that with just his own style, he may have put his stamp on the EXACT kind of oily managerial hollowness prevailing in the downsize era. In a very subtle way, this is a very gutsy piece of work. And there isn't another American actor alive who could have done it as well.

The Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" is a tale gleefully and comically reconstructing the Midwestern Jewish milieu that spawned the brothers. It re-creates life in a sort-of Minneapolis circa 1967, with Jefferson Airplane songs and "New Freedoms" beckoning to the suburban bourgeoisie but with all the trials of Job seeming to descend at once on one poor schlub of a mathematics professor who manages, hilariously, to maintain a befuddled decency despite it all.

It's been years -- since "The Big Lebowski," in fact (which was made from one of their earliest scripts) -- since the Coens had as much affection for one of their male heroes as they seem to have for Larry Gopnik.

And, in one of the more stunning endings you'll see this year, the Coens still refuse to leave Larry all domestic and cuddly at film's end, a la Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in "Fargo."

In Jewish humor, there is a classic proverbial distinction between the schlemiel and the schlemazel: the schlemiel is the guy who always spills the soup. The schlemazel is the guy he always seems to spill it on.

"A Serious Man" (coming in a few weeks) is a hilarious comedy about the ultimate schlemazel, and it's one of the Coens' most lovable movies, however tough it might seem to those in the milieu that spawned them.

Along with a new hope for American comedy, I saw movies that give you new hope for a new kind of horror film: Lars Van Trier's extraordinary "Antichrist," especially, with its already legendary spousal gonad-crushing and attachment of a millstone into an unconscious husband's leg.

But add, too -- and opening Friday -- "Jennifer's Body" starring the young reigning goddess for teens of the moment, Megan Fox of the "Transformers" movies, along with Amanda Seyfried ("Mamma Mia") in a wry script written in arch and cheeky pseudo-teen patois by Diablo Cody.(See Thursday's News for a full review of the movie, which opens this weekend.)

I was lucky. In four days at the festival I saw nothing that even flirted with being bad -- not the Charles Darwin film "Creation," or the extraordinary "The Road," which may be the most depressing single movie I've ever seen.

No matter how depressing "The Road" may be for audiences, there's nothing, I tell you, that gives you more hope for movies than a few days at the Toronto Film Festival.

It continues through Saturday.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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