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Jason Reitman Reflects on Duality

The man in a gray business suit is standing alone.

With his travel bag at his feet, he is silhouetted against a giant window overlooking an airport landing strip. Is this forlorn figure a) going home, or b) just visiting somewhere?

In writer/director Jason Reitman's new Up in the Air, the answer is c) none of the above, with George Clooney starring as a man who spends so much time traveling that he is most at home where he is a stranger.

The film, set to open nationally in December, is scheduled to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 12. A positive reception could establish Reitman among the year's Academy Award heavyweights while furthering the 31-year-old's status as one of his generation's best new filmmakers.

After the success of his 2005 debut, Thank You for Smoking, and the 2007 Oscar-nominated art-house blockbuster Juno, Hollywood doors opened for Reitman. He turned to Up in the Air, a screenplay he had been working on for six years that was inspired by a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn.

It stars Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a charismatic ax man hopscotching the country downsizing companies and occasionally delivering motivational speeches about the virtue of a relationship-free life. He savors the comfortable anonymity that being a perpetual voyager provides.

"All of us have things to say and we just don't know how. Movies are kind of my way of dealing with my inner questions," Reitman says. Kirn's book affected him because of the self-imposed isolation of the main character. "Are we an island or not? That's the simple, classic version of it. More than the value of being connected to the world, what is your responsibility to be connected to the rest of the world?"

Reitman "doesn't pick the easiest subject matter, but that's the mark of a filmmaker who really wants to say something and isn't afraid to explore darker territory," says Sharon Swart, senior features editor at Variety, who recently wrote an article about his new production company, Right Away Films.

"The remarkable thing is he's directed just two features, but you forget that because he knocked it out of the park with both of them," Swart says. "If this third film is just as good or even better, he will have firmly established his career. There are a lot of studios who already want to be in business with him."

The backpack speech

Up in the Air also has strong award prospects for Clooney, as well as Vera Farmiga (The Departed), playing a seductive fellow traveler whose disdain for commitment rivals Bingham's own, and Anna Kendrick (Rocket Science) as an ambitious young colleague who threatens Bingham's way of life by devising a new method to fire people online and eliminating the need for travel.

Reitman saw parallels with his own past as a young commercial director, building up his own massive bank of frequent-flier miles as he journeyed to various locales. It can be a lonely life, but also invigorating.

"I understood the idea of constantly being in flux. I understood the idea of not having a real home, but living hub to hub. There's something exotic about that, and intriguing," Reitman says, sitting at the kitchen table in what is clearly a real home now.

His young daughter's toys are heaped around a small couch in a playroom off the kitchen, and a nearby wall is a large-scale scrapbook of family photos - mostly of his wife, Michele, and their little girl, but also of his parents, Genevieve and Ivan Reitman, himself a famous director known for Ghostbusters, Stripes and Dave, among others.

"I remember when I first started flying a lot, directing commercials," Reitman says of his early, single days. "I really got out there and could do extended runs of not being home. I loved that. I loved the idea I could be walking through an airport and if I made a last-minute decision, I could be on a completely different flight. But that shirks complete responsibility for having a life."

In his motivational lectures, Bingham talks about putting everything you own in a backpack, and then destroying it. Then, he says, imagine all the people in your life, how heavy they are. Maybe they're not worth carrying around, either.

"What's dangerous about the backpack speech is, rather than seeming so outlandish and satirical, when people hear it there's something very understandable about it," Reitman says. "The idea of emptying your life of everything is exactly as he describes. 'Exhilarating, isn't it?' There is something exhilarating about it."

Reitman once faced the prospect of leaving everything behind, but says it's not as bad when you have someone by your side when it's gone.

"We used to live in a canyon, and one time the canyon was on fire. Michele and I had to make a split-second decision about what to take out of the house, and we realized that we didn't want to take anything," he says. The couple had a computer with his writing, and their dog. Their daughter wasn't yet born.

"We had an SUV and thought about, 'Oh, God, I wonder what we could fit!' But we looked around. . . . What do we need? . . . Nothing." He laughs. "I'm sure if we just started putting stuff in we could have filled the car. But when we came down to it, we were both outside the house, she had the dog in her car, and I had my laptop in my car. We were good."

David Poland, veteran industry reporter for MovieCityNews.com, said Reitman is distinguished by "kindness while tackling subjects that feel edgy. That is what all the great directors who have commercial followings have done. No director - save (Orson) Welles - can be judged based on just three films. Jason Reitman has a long career ahead of him. But he already seems to understand actors and how to offer them to audiences in a way that is both familiar and unique."

OK with ambiguity

Reitman's success lies in respecting the audience's analysis, allowing interpretation, and not hitting "too much right on the head," says actor Jason Bateman, who co-starred in Juno and plays Clooney's cocky, out-of-touch boss in Up in the Air. "He likes questions and ambiguity. He doesn't want to spell it out, and I respect that about him."

Abortion rights advocates and opponents alike embraced Juno's story of a pregnant teen who chooses adoption, just as smokers and anti-cigarette advocates praised Thank You for Smoking. Lone wolves and family men may similarly find validation for their choices in Up in the Air.

"A lot of directors can have a God complex. They want to make sure they control everything - what you see, what you feel, what you know, what the message is," Bateman says. "It says a lot about his lack of ego that he doesn't want to control all ends of it, and leaves some of that up to the viewer. It's very telling, and the sign of a classy filmmaker at an early age."

Age is one of the distinctive things about Reitman. Few filmmakers have earned so much freedom so early. "That's great news for us as film fans," Bateman says. "We're going to get a lot of movies out of this guy before he's done."

Reitman is now adapting a script for Joyce Maynard's new novel, Labor Day, and he's planning a film from a screenplay by Jenny Lumet, who wrote last year's Rachel Getting Married.

"The real life-changer for me was Juno," Reitman says. That film collected $213 million worldwide and earned him Academy Award nominations for best director and best picture. (His partner, Diablo Cody, won best original screenplay.) "That was the moment where I had a lot of options as a director and could state whatever course I wanted to go on."

He has also been busy as a producer, working on the Cody-scripted horror/comedy Jennifer's Body, and the romantic thriller Chloe. But Up in the Air is his baby.

It also shows the duality in Reitman's storytelling: At a time when he is hugely popular, he is thinking about isolation.

When he was a hyper-responsible twentysomething working on Thank You for Smoking, that story was about a lobbyist who didn't feel responsible for anything. When he was a devoted new dad, he made Juno - and says he was most struck by the adoptive father (Bateman) who was anything but devoted.

Reitman is fascinated by good people with big blind spots. Clooney's character in Up in the Air is no different. "It's a movie where a guy is moving, is constantly in flux, as if he knows exactly where he is going," Reitman says. "But it's really about a guy who is constantly lost."

Staying grounded

To maintain his own bearings, Reitman turns his sense of humor on himself. When he was nominated for the Oscar, for instance, he made a joke viral video with grade-school journalists peppering him with hostile questions about his qualifications.

You can see it in his pastime - performing DJ mashups at Los Angeles clubs under the name Bad Meaning Bad, a duo with friend Mateo Messina, composer for Juno and Thank You for Smoking. The pair are known for fun-loving, self-deprecating shows.

And the director maintains a healthy Twitter exchange with fans - find him (AT)JasonReitman - posting updates about Up in the Air, while stirring Oprah-esque discussion about his movie-of-the-week picks, classic films he screens for friends each Sunday - most recently Patton, Oldboy and The Wild Bunch.

Reitman's regular-guy attitude comes, again, from thinking of the opposite. "I've always been very cognizant that things will change," he says. "I'm in a nice moment right now."

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