Reitman's latest film, 'Up in the Air,' soars above the rest

By Tatiana Craine

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) loves his life. He flies around the country and relishes in the airport experience. He even makes going through security look like a walk in the park. He travels 322 days a year. And each of those days, he’s firing people to pay his own bills. Ryan works as a corporate downsizer waiting to attain a jumbo-jet amount of frequent flier miles. He breezes through life alone and independent, but happy. But when his company hires an up and coming graduate named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) with new ideas about making the downsizing process more streamlined by digitizing everything, Ryan finds himself grounded and stir crazy.

On a trip, Ryan finds a fellow frequent flier companion, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who delights in the sex-factor that nearly ten million frequent flier miles gives a person. Meanwhile, Ryan tries to prove the importance of downsizing in person to his boss (Jason Bateman) by taking Natalie on a few stops to experience firing employees for herself. Soon, the three learn that about the implications of their loneliness and lack of human connection.

“Up in the Air,” originally a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, has been adapted for the screen nearly a decade later by director Jason Reitman. The film loosely follows the book, focusing on Ryan and his relationships as fleeting as the passersby in an airport.

Clooney turns in an outstanding performance, comfortable as ever in Ryan’s airport-proof shoes. His disarming smirk graces his well-aged features, enchanting characters and audience members alike. However, Clooney manages to balance charisma with emotion and vulnerability. His romantic counterpart, Farmiga, keeps up with Clooney-their passion and zeal never cliché or old.

The film addresses tender topics in today’s economic climate as people lose their jobs and are left to pick up the pieces with the support of family and friends. Far from preachy, “Up in the Air” breaks away from melodrama and presents an entertaining and touching story about a man trying to harmonize his independence and his need for others.

I recently had the chance to meet Reitman. He commands attention the moment he steps into a room; however, it’s not Hollywood attitude that seizes your awareness. Instead, Reitman’s unassuming and lighthearted disposition immediately made me feel at ease.

“Let’s light this candle!” Reitman kicked off the interview with cheery banter, joking about only doing the Minneapolis press circuit before listing off a laundry list of American and European cities he’s visited to promote “Up in the Air.”

On travel, Reitman commented, “I know nothing of what it’s like to travel! [Laughs.] I’ve always traveled a lot-starting as a commercial director, then promoting movies, making movies. I really cherish my time in the air, to be perfectly honest. I love it.”

Though Reitman majored in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, his feature films have been primarily based on books. However, he tries to keep a close relationship with the authors of books he brings to the screen.

Reitman said, “I reach out to authors immediately. I want them to know I want them to be collaborators. Simultaneously, I want them to understand there’s a difference between a book and a movie, and I’m not going to be taking their pages and just putting them on screen, but I respect what they’ve done and I want to honor what they’ve done. I want to keep them involved in the process. I have them on set. I show them drafts of the script. And in doing so, I’ve been able to keep a friendly relationship, a really friendly relationship, with all my authors-including the ones I’m working with now.”

About “Up in the Air” writer, Walter Kirn, Reitman said, “Walter’s seen the movie about seven times. He’s seen it every opportunity he can see it. He loves it.”

Reitman and I talked about developing and finding the characters’ voices in his films. He often uses many of the same actors in his films, like J.K. Simmons and Jason Bateman. Reitman said, “Eight of the parts in this movie I wrote for the actors. I wrote the roles for George [Clooney], Anna [Kendrick], Vera [Farmiga], Zach [Galifianakis], J.K. [Simmons], Sam Elliot, Danny McBride. I found it easier to write once I’ve identified the voice of the actor, and that’s why I have a better hit rate as far as the actors seem like they’re really right for the parts.”

For “Up in the Air,” Reitman used an interesting method to bring the reality of the film’s message into the audience’s heart: he fired real people on screen. The film’s journey has been years-long, going through economic ups and downs.

About the economy and extremely personal elements in the film, Reitman said, “I think when we first started writing the script, we were in an economic boom, and I’d written scenes where people lost their jobs, and it just wasn’t accurate anymore. By the time of shooting the film, we were in an enormous recession, and at that point I thought the most authentic way was to approach real people. We were in St. Louis and Detroit-two cities that got hammered-and we found 60 people to come on camera. [To] talk about their lives, talk about what it was like to be searching for purpose on a daily basis, and we fired them on camera. We said, ‘We’re going to fire you and want you to respond with what you said the day you lost your job or what you wish you had said.’ And that changed the tone of our shoot, and that was a direct response to the changing economic climate.”

Like Reitman’s other films (“Juno” and “Thank You For Smoking”), “Up in the Air” features a distinctive and unique opening title sequence. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings sing their version of “This Land Is Your Land,” against a whimsical backdrop of gorgeous aerial shots displaying expansive fields, cramped cities and ballooning clouds.

When I asked Reitman about his inspiration and motivation for the film’s beginning, he said, “I’ve always liked opening title sequences. I think there’s a real value to them and they are a nice separation from the outside world, and commercials and trailers you have to see in the theater. I think they went to the wayside because directors like to see their name at the end of the film. Like in a kind of ego way-like, directed by me, and I don’t know. I believe in the art form of opening titles, and I happen to work with a great team who I met as a short filmmaker when they were short filmmakers themselves. Some people want to get right in. I like to set the tone. Even the song I chose [for the opening title sequence]: it’s different from all the songs in the movie, but it just puts you in the mood.”

Despite the film’s heavy subject matter, Reitman remains confident that audiences will respond well.

“I want to entertain people, and I like to move people. I like my films to serve as a mirror. It doesn’t have answers, and I don’t think there are answers in life. The only thing that I’m fairly confident [in] is that life is infinitely complicated. If people can relate to my film, no matter who they are, that’s good.”

As a last, playful thought, Reitman shared his favorite type of eggs, “I love huevos rancheros.” You heard it here-The Mac Weekly cracking that (egg) breaking news.

Reitman balances the real and fictitious on the streamlined wings of a jumbo jet. “Up in the Air” is touching and thought-provoking.

“Up in the Air” opens everywhere Dec. 4.