EVEN though Jason Reitman’s last film, “Juno,” was nominated for a best picture Oscar and his forthcoming film, “Up in the Air,” is among the most buzzed about this year, you probably wouldn’t notice this bearded young man walking by you in an airport.
It would be a good place to look, though.
Mr. Reitman, a 32-year-old prone to hoodies and stocking caps, reeks normalcy in most ways but is something of an obsessive when it comes to airports. Although he has a young family and a home in Los Angeles, his directing career has made him a frequent flier with an exalted airline status. He can speak with impressive specificity about security, amenities and wait times at dozens of airports because he spends so much time living in them.
That intimate familiarity with the rhythms and aesthetics of modern air travel informs much of “Up in the Air,” which opens Friday in 12 cities in advance of a wide Christmas release. This Paramount film, written by Mr. Reitman and Sheldon Turner and based on the novel by Walter Kirn, tells the story of a man who spends much of his time aloft, toe touching only long enough to fire people on behalf of companies that are too cowardly to take care of their own nasty business. A pampered member of a winged elite, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) finds everything he needs in his roll-on suitcase. A charming, rootless grim reaper, Ryan has little use for the human connections that complicate life and little in the way of empathy for the people he is relentlessly axing. Along the way he finds a female doppelgänger, played by Vera Farmiga, who makes his stays at airport hotels all the more accommodating.
But the hermetic pleasantness of his existence is threatened when a young efficiency expert at the home office comes up with a plan to fire people remotely, using video chat. Mr. Clooney’s character gradually awakens to the human consequences of his chosen path as professional downsizer. As in “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking,” Mr. Reitman’s other feature-length films, the dialogue comes rapidly, and the movie delivers plenty of dark humor, but the backdrop of mass layoffs and empty desks gives it a somber resonance as well.
In the course of writing and making the film the recession took hold just as Mr. Reitman and his wife began having children, which got him thinking about the homes and families torn apart by layoffs. The film, with its idealized depiction of air travel that leads to brutal consequences, suggests that while we can now go almost anywhere in a heartbeat, where exactly are we headed?
When it comes time to talk about his movie, we meet quite naturally in an airport. As we walked through Terminal A at Newark Liberty International Airport (not one of his favorites, by the way) Mr. Reitman stopped at a gadget store and made the traveler’s feral scan of the shelves in search of power for his iPhone. Although he had been in 15 cities in two weeks, he had nowhere to go on this day but offered to meet at an airport because I had a flight, and he likes airports just fine. Loves them, in fact.
“I’m very at home here. Look, I get to see a plane take off over your shoulders every few minutes, which is always exciting for me,” he said, gesturing to the tarmac as we settle in to a booth at T.G.I. Friday’s. “It would be fine for me to sit down at the bar, approach anyone here and talk to them about stuff and learn about their lives. The rest of the world turns off, no one expects anything of you, and I talk to strangers, I learn about lives I would never otherwise know about.”
That may sound a bit affected, a postmodern accommodation of a peripatetic existence, but Mr. Reitman looks at home in the booth even though he grew up in and around Los Angeles as the son of the Hollywood director and producer Ivan Reitman, who is a producer on the film and whose company put up half of the $25 million budget.
“All the airports kind of feel and look the same now,” Mr. Reitman said, grabbing one of the small burgers in the middle of the table. “Some are more beautiful, some are less beautiful, but for the most part you’re going to find a Starbucks in every airport. You’re going to get your coffee and the USA Today or New York Times in every airport. All the things that you want are there, so you can land anywhere, and you feel at home. You’re given the sense that you’re everywhere, but you’re nowhere; that you are constantly with your community, yet you have no community. There’s kind of a terrific irony to that.”
It is a short metaphorical walk, Mr. Reitman suggests, from the temporary bonhomie of airports to the social networks proliferating through our wired society.
“Technology works the same way. Things like Facebook have made you feel as though you’re connected to everybody,” he said, indicating his iPhone. “You’ve got a thousand friends on Facebook, but you don’t actually talk to anybody. You’re not close to anybody.”
This lack of attachment, both physical and emotional, frees Mr. Clooney’s character and imprisons him at the same time. His chosen path of piling up the miles while missing connections with his fellow humans comes in for scrutiny when his boss in Omaha (played by Jason Bateman, who also starred in “Juno”) becomes impressed by a fresh-out-of-college innovator inhabited by Anna Kendrick. She officiously argues that it’s much more cost effective to ship the outplacement brochures to each location and ruin people’s life remotely. She is sent on the road with Mr. Clooney’s character to be schooled in the face-to-face process even as she argues for its obsolescence. With his black belt in both travel and dismissals — her newbie status at both is the source of high jinks — he teaches her never to check luggage and to tell the freshly disenfranchised, “Everything you need to know is in the brochure.”
That last piece of advice is, of course, a lie, something that becomes clear in the reaction shots of the people whose lives are being fundamentally altered. By the time the script was finished and shooting was being set, Mr. Reitman realized that job loss, merely a motif in the script, was something he had to come at more directly. He decided to hold an open casting call for the recently fired in St. Louis and Detroit. Kevin Pilla, a father of four from St. Louis, was cast after he received an untenable relocation offer from his employer, an electronics distribution company.
“It gave me a chance to relive the moment and say all of the things that I wanted to say at the time,” Mr. Pilla said. He did not move and now has a job, but it took 19 brutal months, a kind of rolling agony that is etched into the performances of the nonactors who are part of the film.
“The second they heard the language of firing, you could just see it,” Mr. Reitman said. “Their eyes would turn, their posture would change, their face would go sallow. One girl broke into hives. It just happened, and they would be in the moment.”
“Some people were angry; some people were really sad; some people just had questions, were looking for answers,” he continued. “The scariest thing, the saddest thing, it wasn’t that they didn’t have money. No one complained about that. The harder thing was, people said unanimously, across the board: ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go from here. When I leave this interview, I get in my car, I don’t know where I need to be.’ That for me is a devastating idea, and the closest thing to what George’s character was going through.”
Mr. Reitman originally did not plan to turn Mr. Kirn’s novel into a movie; he had urged his father to buy the rights. But after several stalled attempts to develop it, Ivan Reitman turned to his son.
“Jason is always watching all the time and has a gift for dialogue as a writer and a director that is pretty rare,” the elder Mr. Reitman said. “And he has a moral compass about how people are treated that worked very well in this film.”
His son took Mr. Kirn’s idea of a man who lived in an airline seat — “I’m from here,” he says cheerfully to a query from a fellow passenger — and wrote several new story lines, including a romance of equals with Ms. Farmiga’s character. In a hotel lobby bar, naturally, they meet cute and begin comparing club cards and membership privileges until they casually hook up, which may be the ultimate amenity of travel. But Mr. Clooney’s character finds himself pining for something more from his fellow road warrior and takes her to the wedding of a family member. It looks as if a movie-magic hug is nigh, but that is not how Mr. Reitman works.
“Jason is not somebody who is going to give you the same old tidy ending,” Ms. Farmiga said. “And as an actor, it is much more surprising and invigorating to work on a film like this.”
Mr. Reitman’s ability to render imperfect people in watchable ways is not lost on fellow directors.
“This movie is funny and sad, a very personal kind of work that is not very common,” said Judd Apatow, the director and producer (“Knocked Up,” “Funny People”) who is a friend of Mr. Reitman. “It’s full of people who are not doing the right thing most of the time, and even though they are a mess, we find them human and relatable.”
In an e-mail message from Italy Mr. Clooney said that Mr. Reitman was one of the best directors he’s worked with, on the level of the Coen brothers or Steven Soderbergh. “And with each film he gets better,” he wrote. “He’s nice. He’s smart. He’s accomplished. I hate him.”
Despite his upbringing and his professional accolades, Mr. Reitman has little concern for status. (“Jason is the kind of guy who is happy to meet at the old taco stand around the corner from the fancy restaurant,” said Eric Steelberg, a high school friend and the director of photography on this film and “Juno.”)
Except when it comes to airline travel. He once flew from Los Angeles to Chicago to pick up a pizza and, not so coincidently, to maintain his status on United Airlines. I mention that the flight I’m about to take will earn me a gold card on Continental.
“I’m very proud of you,” he said, offering a fist bump, but he can’t resist a bit of comparison. “I’m at a level on United that is invite-only. It’s called Global Services.”
Yes, he’s from here.