Boston.com: At the top, with an eye on downsizing

Fresh off the success of ‘Juno,’ Reitman heads ‘Up in the Air’

Jason Reitman (right), who co-wrote, produced, and directed “Up in the Air,’’ and its star George Clooney. (Dale Robinette)

Jason Reitman (right),  who co-wrote, produced, and directed “Up in the Air,’’ and its star  George Clooney.

By Janice Page Globe Staff / November 29, 2009

Jason Reitman has some bad news. He’s very sorry, but he’s going to have to let me go.

“This has nothing to do with your value as a writer,’’ the young filmmaker is saying with mock seriousness. “You see what’s happening around us . . . journalism is getting hit particularly hard . . . we are not going to be able to keep you on at the Globe any further . . . today is, in fact, your last day.’’

Then, a little too convincingly, the writer-director of this award season’s buzz-worthy black comedy “Up in the Air’’ gestures across the conference room table to an imaginary packet containing details of my severance. He asks that I clean out my desk swiftly and keep the news to myself (“We don’t want to create mass hysteria here’’) and he promises to be a reference and a resource for anything I might need in the future.

His chilling two-minute monologue – an impromptu parody of George Clooney’s super-smooth corporate hatchet-man character in “Up in the Air’’ – closes with a hollow apology: “I’m sorry it has to go this way. It’s not my personal decision and it’s really not a function of your relationship with this company, but rather just the times that we’re in.’’

You understand.

Though Reitman kids for the sake of this interview in a Boston hotel, he’s also painfully close to a real-life scenario. The film, which opens Friday, holds a magnifying glass to the corporate downsizing happening all over the country. The result could not feel more of-the-moment, which makes it all the more remarkable that it started out several years ago as just another sarcastic art-house offering by an unproven Hollywood brat.

Back then, the movie was a loose adaptation of Walter Kirn’s highly entertaining 2002 novel about a “career transition counselor’’ named Ryan Bingham, who is more at home on airplanes than on the ground. Reinventing an early draft by Sheldon Turner, Reitman put his own spin on Kirn’s lone-wolf protagonist, and sculpted two self-assured females who could give Clooney’s character a run for his frequent flier miles. Vera Farmiga plays a worldly and undemanding soul mate. Anna Kendrick is a young efficiency expert out to marginalize his job.

Reitman’s plot travels the country, touching down to execute layoffs in cities like Detroit and Miami and to attend a family wedding in small-town Wisconsin. Conceptually it’s located somewhere between “Death of a Salesman’’ and “Ocean’s Twelve’’ – Bingham is a more polished but equally mortal Willy Loman.

Had it been released earlier, “Up in the Air’’ would have been a very different film by a very different filmmaker. Instead, Reitman took time out to direct his first feature-length screenplay, the superbly satiric “Thank You for Smoking,’’ adapted from Christopher Buckley’s novel about a tobacco lobbyist with feelings. Then, he had the presence of mind to direct Diablo Cody’s Oscar-bound screenplay for “Juno,’’ a flip and funny portrait of teen pregnancy. By the time he got back to “Up in the Air,’’ the economy was collapsing to the degree that scenes shot documentary-style, using non-actors to replay their own firings, produced footage far more tragic than comic.

Meanwhile, Reitman had evolved from life as a carefree single guy with a resume mostly limited to short films, Burger King commercials, and hanging out on the sets of “Ghostbusters’’ and other broad comedies directed by his dad, Ivan Reitman. He was a married man now, with one child and two highly regarded feature films under his belt. He suddenly felt ready to say something wise about people searching for purpose.
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“I was going from making a satire about a man who fires people for a living to making a movie about a guy who wants to know what he truly wants in his life,’’ Reitman recalls. “As I became a guy split between having a very complete life at home and at work, I also still found myself drawn to the idea of waking up alone in a city where I know nobody and have nothing. I find that still exhilarating.’’

The likable 32-year-old auteur actually enjoys riding on airplanes and chatting with strangers. His carry-ons (one suitcase, one backpack) are thoroughly thought out, just like Bingham’s. When he’s promoting a film, he goes full tilt, currently keeping up an amusing running commentary on Twitter and even posting a pie chart of the interview questions he’s been asked (number one topic: Clooney).

Though his interactions seem genuine enough, he admits to playing a character on some level: “When this process is over, when I stop doing publicity, you won’t see me on Twitter,’’ he says.

Until then, Reitman is a relatively open book.

Ask him about his boyhood and he’ll reveal a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder that compelled him to flip his bedroom light switches in the exact same way every night. He uses that to his advantage now, directing his actors with extraordinary focus and vision.

“He’s really specific,’’ Kendrick confirms. Best known for roles in “Rocket Science’’ and “Twilight,’’ she appreciated Reitman’s sturdiness on set, maybe because she hails from no-nonsense Maine and with this filmmaker “you always know that if what you’re trying isn’t working, he’s got a plan.’’

So far, his instincts haven’t let him down.

When Reitman abandoned med-school aspirations to make subversive movies about classic American antiheroes, he knew he’d be swimming upstream, especially as the spawn of a filmmaker known for lowbrow crowd-pleasers.

“I was kind of born with this thousand-pound name that has made me prepared,’’ he says, looking on the bright side.

His expectation is not that everything he touches will be a hit (he produced Cody’s underwhelming horror spoof, “Jennifer’s Body’’) but that the sum total might help create more open-minded viewers. As a screenwriter, he prefers adapting novels (next up, Joyce Maynard’s “Labor Day’’) because they provide language to articulate the questions in his own head.

He’s a contrarian and a libertarian, so he has a lot of questions.

He’s also got a big, bold, slightly psychopathic laugh, which he unleashes with startling frequency. Except when he’s pretending to fire you; then he’s as serious as a heart attack.

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