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Jason Reitman firmly at the controls in 'Up in the Air'

Now in only his third feature, the son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman has created his own identity in the business, and 'Air's' star George Clooney, for one, is impressed.

November 29, 2009|By Rachel Abramowitz >>>

Jason Reitman is the first to tell you that he's an "aisle."
He prefers sitting in an aisle seat on an airplane, which is relevant because his new film, "Up in the Air," in theaters Friday, is shot extensively on planes and in airports. It details the life of urbane corporate-downsizing expert Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who flies around the country firing people and studiously avoiding human connection.
For Reitman, an aisle is never just an aisle or a preference for legroom but an actual psychological tag, which he describes as "selfish." Picking the aisle says you "need to be in possession of your destiny," he explains. "You need to be in control and freedom is important." Conversely, if you're a window, like Reitman's wife, Michele Lee, "you are selfless."
The 32-year-old writer-director has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the emotional geography of air flight, almost as much as his cinematic protagonist who rhapsodizes about "airworld" with its "dry, recycled air" and "aura-sapping artificial lighting," as Walter Kirn writes in the novel from which the film is adapted. Reitman spent six years -- on and off -- writing the script. He delivers the "aisle" metaphor smoothly and engagingly as he sits in a banal leather chair, in a cavernous but impersonal airport hotel near LAX.
Reitman projects a pleasant intensity, focused but loose, with longish hair tossed behind his ears. It's hard not to feel as if you're in the hands of a polished director who has orchestrated this moment just so. The meeting place is of course thematically appropriate to the film, and the aisle-seat insight, he explains, came out of a conversation he had with NPR host Terry Gross a few hours before.

And there are the props. Reitman, who's been dutifully bounding around the country talking up his film, has actually made a pie chart, via an iPhone app, that he's posted on his Twitter page. It chronicles the kinds of questions asked to him by journalists, with the majority of them about Clooney, then the film's take on the economy, and so on and so on.

The conceit may reflect the routinization of entertainment journalism, with its mass junkets where reporters ask similar questions to directors and stars hawking their films. Reitman blithely insists his little chart isn't belittling to journalists, deeming them interchangeable drones, but just a reflection of the rote quality of the interviews. Ironically enough, Reitman's cheerful, scripted depersonalization of people is precisely what "Up in the Air" protagonist Bingham practices as he jets around America laying off bewildered workers. The fun-house effect is further amplified because most of the reporters flocking to speak to Reitman are no strangers to layoffs, survivors in an industry hit hard by the recession and changing times.

The interview gets very self-referential very quickly, and what saves Reitman from coming off a clueless schmuck with this particular stunt is a kind of winning humanity, present both in person and in his films. With three movies under his belt, Reitman is fast becoming a voice of his generation, a cool-eyed ironist with a disdain for easy moralizing, who invariably gives a Capra-esque kick to characters who could be construed as jerks (a tobacco lobbyist in "Thank You for Smoking," the corporate grim reaper in "Up in the Air") or situations ripe for disgust, dismay, or cheap moralization as in "Juno," for which he was nominated for a directing Oscar.

Reitman loves to purposely disrupt well-worn platitudes. "I'm just contrary," he says. "I want to take an open-minded point of view on someone that is normally vilified." He quotes "Thank You for Smoking," Christopher Buckley's book that was the source material for his first movie: "If you want an easy job, go work for the Red Cross. If you want a real job, go work for Big Tobacco." I have always kind of seen something in that, like making 'The Insider' is easy, right?" he says, referring to the 1999 Michael Mann film about a corporate whistle-blower who exposed the tobacco companies. "It's like Big Tobacco is evil. Wow, what a statement," he adds with a smirk.

In "Up in the Air," Reitman dives head first into one of the most wrenching developments of the day -- joblessness -- particularly among white-collar workers. Already, the film has won over audiences at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and has distinguished itself as an early awards-season favorite. While there are multiple termination scenes, the film is actually the story of the suavest misanthrope on the planet, "a guy who believes in the idea of living alone with nothing, and that this is an acceptable way of life," Reitman says. Enter two women who disrupt this existential solitude: Vera Farmiga as Clooney's no-strings-attached love interest, and Anna Kendrick, an officious go-getter, whom Clooney is ordered to take around the country on his firing missions.

Taking it personally

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