Frequent flier brings the bad news
'Up in the Air' director Jason Reitman goes on the record
by David Lamble
In his three edgy comedy/dramas, Canadian-born writer/director Jason Reitman has displayed a sure knack for summoning feisty chemistry between characters from different generations. In Thank You for Smoking, a brazenly charming tobacco lobbyist gives his teenage son a hands-on lesson in political spin-doctoring; in Juno, a very pregnant high school girl enables a frustrated adult woman to achieve motherhood while learning how to slip back into a far more innocent role with her own cute-as-pudding track-star boyfriend. In Reitman's latest, Up in the Air, a guy who fires people for a living, spending as much time as he can living sans family and other nettlesome human bonds, enables a smarty-pants management trainee to open her eyes to the true cost of seeing other people as excess baggage.
In a career that has thus far featured no significant queer characters, Reitman does deliver a bracing mentoring moment in Up in the Air where the junior executive-to-be, Natalie (Rocket Science's Anna Kendrick), gets relationship advice from Ryan (the world's most charming leading guy, George Clooney) and his frequent-flier fuck-buddy, Alex (the silky smooth Vera Farmiga). Just dumped by her Omaha boyfriend (by text message, no less), Natalie breaks down in an airport checkout line. The girl who wants to fire people via the Internet can't take the super-competitive Alex's advice that there's no perfect guy in her future, that all a careerwoman can hope for is a man who earns more than she does, and is healthy enough to play with his kids.
"Wow, that's depressing. Couldn't we just date women?"
"Tried it – we're no picnic ourselves."
Reitman, whose Hollywood dad Ivan was producer of the John Belushi comedy classic Animal House and director of the 80s smash hit Ghostbusters, was taken aback when I quizzed him about LGBT characters in his films. "I'm suddenly very embarrassed. I'm going to have to work on that." Reitman did have a nifty comeback. "I have played a gay character. In college, I played Jeffrey in Jeffrey ."
Turns out it was an odd career-defining moment for this kid obviously headed for the picture business: 17, a freshman at Skidmore College, the memory is still a bit raw, but not for the reasons you might expect. "Honestly, the thing I realized most is that I am an awful actor! Kissing guys was easy, the hard part was knowing how bad I was every second. Jeffrey has all these monologues – the director re-envisioned it where I had to sing on stage. I'm still mortified as to how bad I was."
Reitman conceded this mortification gave him a leg up in working with screen actors. His films are a cornucopia of authentic turns from Clooney, Farmiga, Kendrick, Ellen Page and the almost angelical but true-to-life sweet Michael Cera.
"Like most people, I don't have whatever that thing is that allows you to go on camera, be yourself and connect to people. I was never in character for a moment. 'Just 27 lines left, I'm almost off stage. Wow! I'm really miserable up here!'"
A remarkable device contributing to the empathy audiences feel for people getting the ax is that in all but one case, the fired are played by actual jobless persons, who say what they said in the real moment, or wished they had had the wit to say. An exception is Reitman regular J.K. Simmons, who knocks the ball out of the park as a just-fired dad. Simmons shows his character's kids' pictures like cards caged from a good poker hand, and the smooth-as-silk Clooney has to verbally massage him.
In the time it took to get his adaptation of Walter Kirn's 2001 novel to the screen, mass unemployment lost some of its potential for gallows humor. There are several scenes where Ryan gives Natalie a reality check about the fallout when the newly fired let loose. Natalie races out of the building in a panic when a steely-eyed African American woman blandly announces that she's going to kill herself.
"People say these things all the time. They seldom do it."
"How do you know? Do you follow up on them?"
"Nothing good would come from that. Natalie, we take people at their most vulnerable, and set them adrift."
I told Reitman that Up in the Air could have been a bitter, corrosive satire, like Billy Wilder's acidic spoof of 1950s tabloid journalism, Ace in the Hole.
"If I wanted a dark satire, I could have approached the economy in a funnier way. I wanted to make a movie about human connections, and for that it needed to be more real." Reitman said the real people who contribute cameos in the movie were paid for their stories and made members of the Screen Actors Guild.
Citing Sean Penn's Best Actor Oscar speech for Milk, Reitman declared "the gay rights movement is the civil rights question of my generation." That said, Reitman explains that he doesn't want to make a pro-gay movie that would bash homophobes the way The Insider skewered executives for Big Tobacco.
In addition to being born in Montreal, Reitman was raised (mostly in LA) in a half-Jewish, half-Christian household. "There's a very arrogant American idea that my way is right and I don't need to hear any other version of reality, and that drives me up the wall!"
I asked Reitman if he could imagine a lesbian story that fit his criteria.
"I would love doing, say, my generation's Inherit the Wind, something that spoke to the danger of religion and the way that it not only drives our politics, but somehow drives our personal values.
"In the case of Thank You for Smoking, everyone was vilifying smokers and cigarette companies. Cigarette companies are basically a mass of people trying to make a living. There are plenty of people who work for McDonald's and Coke who do things just as awful. If I was going to make a dark film, I would probably seek to mock things most people think of as pleasant: vegans, or Prius owners.
"I'm never going to make Milk for the same reason I'm never going to make The Insider. I remember going to hear Jeffrey Wigand [the scientist who blew the whistle on the cigarette moguls] debate. I fell in love with the Phillip Morris guy. Jeffrey Wigand is listing stats and telling how dangerous cigarettes are. The Philip Morris guy went on stage in California, where everybody hated him, he had a smile and knew how to deal with our questions.
"I'd make a gay movie that was revelatory, that humanizes an otherwise villainous character. I don't know what that is yet."