Film opens Dec. 25: According to the usual Hollywood script, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air should not be coming to a theater near you—or anywhere else. It's exactly the kind of film the big studios don't want to make anymore: a mid-budget ($25 million), hard-to-classify (serious comedy? funny drama?) movie about grown-ups made for grown-ups. "They have no faith in these kinds of movies usually," Reitman says. They don't usually have much faith in 32-year-old guys who dress like skater dudes (woolen cap, jeans, T shirt) and have directed all of two movies, either. But Reitman kind of specializes in breaking the rules, probably because he's been studying Hollywood his whole life. (Article continued below…)
Reitman is the son of Ivan Reitman, whose string of hit comedies helped define '80s Hollywood (Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters), and his dad's job provided a rare perch from which to study the business. He's seen what happens when a young director is so hungry that he leaps at almost any project, only to get pigeonholed. He actually turned down the first big directing job he was offered—Dude, Where's My Car?—twice. Looking back, Reitman knows that sometimes in Hollywood you get only one shot, but he had extra motivation to prove himself. He was determined to show "that I'm the real deal, not just the son of the guy who made Ghostbusters," he says. "I've always had an underdog perspective." He says he's asked his father for help only one time: when he wanted to buy the rights to Walter Kirn's 2001 book, Up in the Air.
Reitman was browsing in a West Hollywood bookstore when he first encountered the novel, about a man who flies around the country doing the dirty work the corporations don't want to touch: he fires people for a living. Happily single, blissfully unattached to any home or family, Ryan Bingham spends his life in the air, in airports, in interchangeable hotel rooms, dreaming of the perk-filled moment when he'll achieve 10 million miles on his frequent-flier plan. (Kirn's novel had the misfortune of coming out just after 9/11.) Reitman, who shared Bingham's obsession with solitude and travel, started to write a satire about corporate life. He had to stop when he suddenly got the money to make his first film, Thank You for Smoking. Several years later he resumed, only to be interrupted again when he got the chance to direct Juno. By the time he revisited Up in the Air, the economy had collapsed, and unemployment was no longer a subject to be treated lightly. "The world had changed," Reitman says, and he had changed too. "I'd gone from being a guy with a girlfriend living in a small apartment directing commercials to a man with a house, a mortgage, a wife, and children. I'd become a man in those years." Suddenly, everything he'd written thus far seemed unsatisfactory: "It was from the point of view of someone with no responsibilities. I was just being satirical, contradictory, making fun of things." So he set his aim higher, wanting to make a film with the kind of complex, seriocomic humanity he admired in Billy Wilder, Hal Ashby, James L. Brooks, and the contemporary director he most reveres, Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election). "Alexander is doing exactly what I want to do," he says. "He has the most honest take on human experience."
There hasn't been a studio movie as unapologetically adult, sophisticated, and nuanced as Up in the Air in some time. Reitman wrote the lead with George Clooney in mind, and there are echoes of the unmarried Clooney's life here. He's playing another urbane charmer, but there's a panic, a vulnerability, under the slick surface that Clooney has rarely shown. The rootless, no-strings life Bingham has constructed is imperiled when a young efficiency expert (Anna Kendrick) hired by Bingham's boss (Jason Bateman) concludes that the company can save time, money, and manpower by firing people remotely—via teleconferencing. Threatened with permanent grounding, Bingham takes the brash woman on the road to show her why the delicate but brutal job must be done in person. There's a second challenge to his beloved autonomy: Alex (Vera Farmiga), another corporate frequent flier with whom he begins a hot affair. Alex is his perfect counterpart ("Think of me as you, with a vagina," she quips), as wary of emotional baggage as he is, content with occasional romps in airport hotels when they can coordinate their flight patterns. Farmiga is a great partner for Clooney, her wry sophistication setting off silky sexual sparks against his jaunty seductiveness. But Alex gets further under Bingham's skin than he expects. Suddenly, he experiences need, and it's profoundly uncomfortable.
In its funny, rueful way, Up in the Air touches contemporary American notes few Hollywood movies acknowledge. It starts with a striking series of interviews with people who have lost their jobs (most of them are real people Reitman filmed under the guise of making a documentary about how people react to getting terminated), which immediately places us in the wintry present tense of the country's economic climate. That this glimpse of cold reality meshes seamlessly with the romantic and comedic elements of the story is a testament to Reitman's growing assurance as a filmmaker. There are no heroes and villains in Up in the Air: Kendrick's smug efficiency expert turns out to have as many human surprises up her snappy pantsuits as the coolly self-sufficient Alex does; there's not a character who isn't granted his or her humanity.
Up in the Air isn't your typical Oscar-bait movie: there's nothing self-important or self-consciously flashy about it. More than likely, it will compete against a murderers' row of big hitters: Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones; Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela/rugby epic, Invictus; Rob Marshall's Nine, from the Fellini-inspired Broadway musical; and James Cameron's nearly $500 million 3-D science-fiction adventure, Avatar.
This year the Academy expanded the field of best-picture nominees to 10 in the hope that the longer list would include more mainstream, populist offerings, and thus broaden the telecast's declining audience. Hollywood would be seriously embarrassed if the result instead is a lineup stacked with more small, independent movies and foreign fare—especially in a year in which many of the studios, such as Warner Bros. and Paramount, shut down their independent boutiques and other distributors went out of business. It could well happen: in the first 10 months of the year the movies most often cited as contenders, such as The Hurt Locker, Precious, and An Education, have all been independent productions. Only Pixar's universally adored Up, and long-shot studio hits such as District 9, Star Trek, and Julie & Julia, even enter the conversation. As Hollywood becomes more committed to movies based on videogames, comic books, and the hormonal fantasies of 16-year-old boys, the trend toward independent Oscar dominance will continue—if the indies can find people to bankroll their increasingly endangered efforts.
Reitman's movie has hit the sweet spot: it's an audience-friendly studio movie, yet it harbors an independent spirit and heart. If it gets Reitman his second best-director nomination, it's not because he set out to get one, though he thinks he could handle the heights. He's seen directors paralyzed by success after winning an Oscar, not that he worries about that, either. "I'm not going to have a perfect career," he says. "It's better to be Billy Wilder and make lots of movies and have five or six great ones than to make so few movies that when you make a bad one it crushes you." Up in the Air is likely to be remembered as one of his best.