Unlike the zigzagging protagonist of his latest film, Jason Reitman tends to stay close to home. “If we were in a small town, you’d call me a ‘townie.’ I’d be the guy who’s always lived within a mile of the house he grew up in,” says the Oscar-nominated Juno director on a recent afternoon in his West Hollywood office — an unassuming suite of rooms, staffed by a handful of mild-mannered, happy-looking assistants, near the edge of Beverly Hills. A small sign beside the front door announces, modestly: We Make Movies. “I grew up riding my bicycle around here,” Reitman adds, gesturing toward a bank of windows overlooking Sunset Boulevard. “I lived on Elm, I lived on Crescent, and now I live near Coldwater Canyon. I’ve never moved west of the 405.”
By contrast, Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney in Reitman’s Up in the Air, gathers no moss. A third-party hatchet man enlisted by companies too timid (or already short-staffed) to handle their own firings, Bingham spends most of his life at 20,000 feet, basking in the comfort of strangers and the anodyne pleasures of business class. Consider him an avatar of our wired-in age of global communication, at once everywhere and nowhere in particular, touching down just long enough to deliver the bad news to the newly downsized, along with the smiling guarantee that, really, this is going to turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Then it’s off to the next hollowed-out cubicle wasteland — a landscape Reitman, who shot the film in such solid Middle American locales as Detroit and St. Louis and cast actual laid-off workers to play themselves, turns into the most resonant of this movie season’s many apocalyptic visions. Indeed, for most of us, this is how the world really ends — not with a Roland Emmerich–size bang but a pink slip.
Adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a 2001 Walter Kirn novel that had the misfortune of landing in bookstores mere weeks ahead of the September 11 attacks, Up in the Air can be considered a companion film of sorts to Reitman’s 2005 debut feature, Thank You for Smoking, which focused on the fast-talking exploits of another professional bullshit artist — a Big Tobacco lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart. It was an auspicious beginning that offered ample evidence of Reitman’s sure hand with actors (a large ensemble, including Robert Duvall, William H. Macy and Sam Elliott) and an ear for the kind of barbed dialogue that powered the rat-a-tat Hollywood comedies of yesteryear — movies Reitman, who didn’t attend film school, is still catching up with. It’s also a good yardstick of just how far he has come as a filmmaker in the four years since: Where Smoking sometimes hedged its satiric bets to make sure we knew Eckhart’s Nick Naylor was really a good guy at heart, Up in the Air views Bingham with considerably greater ambivalence, playing the character’s gray morality against Clooney’s natural charm. It seems all the smarter for doing so.
“I think I’m growing up and my films seem to be becoming more real,” says Reitman in his let-me-level-with-you way, adding that he recently caught parts of his two previous films on HBO and is learning from his mistakes. “I’m just becoming more confident as a storyteller, and I’m heading more in the direction of drama and more in the direction of real human beings dealing with real shit.”
Indeed, growing up is something of a constant for Reitman, onscreen and off, perhaps because, at all of 32, he’s still in the midst of it himself. In the last five years, he married, bought a house and become a father. He’s also made three movies that, beyond their surface topicality, are all portraits of people questioning their beliefs and struggling to find their footing in the world. Which helps to explain why Juno and its pregnant Minnesota teen ended up earning praise from both sides of the abortion divide, and why Up in the Air has been embraced by early festival audiences, despite the obvious concerns over releasing a movie about job loss into the worst economy in a half-century.
“My films never touch on what the answers are when it comes to their polarizing subjects — they simply use [the subjects] as a location,” Reitman says. “In Thank You for Smoking, cigarette smoking is the location for a movie about parenting. In Juno, teenage pregnancy is the location for a movie about people trying to decide what moment they want to grow up. It’s about the loss of innocence — that’s what that movie’s about, and this movie’s not about the economy. The economy is a setting to talk about how we complete our lives. Is it okay to be alone? That’s a big one — that’s the one that people ask me about all the time now. Are you indicting the idea of being alone? No! I’m the one movie that’s saying it’s okay to be alone in life. That’s the most politically charged issue in Up in the Air.”
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes