Grounded: Up in the Air director Jason Reitman has a good sense of where he's from and where he's headed

Unlike the zigzagging protagonist of his latest film, Up in the Air, Jason Reitman tends to stay close to home. "If we were in a small town, you'd call me a 'townie.' I'd be the guy who's always lived within a mile of the house he grew up in," says the Oscar-nominated Juno director on a recent afternoon in his West Hollywood office, where a small sign beside the front door announces, modestly: "We Make Movies." "I grew up riding my bicycle around here," Reitman adds, gesturing toward a bank of windows overlooking Sunset Boulevard. "I lived on Elm, I lived on Crescent, and now I live near Coldwater Canyon. I've never moved west of the 405."

By contrast, Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney in Reitman's Up in the Air, gathers no moss. A third-party hatchet man enlisted by companies too timid (or already too short-staffed) to handle their own firings, Bingham spends most of his life at 20,000 feet, basking in the comfort of strangers and the anodyne pleasures of business class, touching down just long enough to deliver the bad news to the newly downsized, along with the smiling guarantee that, really, this is going to turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Then it's off to the next hollowed-out cubicle wasteland — a landscape Reitman turns into the most resonant of this movie season's many apocalyptic visions. Indeed, for most of us, this is how the world really ends — not with a Roland Emmerich–size bang, but with a pink slip.

Adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a 2001 Walter Kirn novel, Up in the Air can be considered a companion film of sorts to Reitman's 2005 debut feature, Thank You for Smoking, which focused on the fast-talking exploits of another professional bullshit artist — a Big Tobacco lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart. It was an auspicious beginning that offered ample evidence of Reitman's sure hand with actors and an ear for the kind of barbed dialogue that powered the rat-a-tat Hollywood comedies of yesteryear. It's also a good yardstick of just how far he has come as a filmmaker in the four years since: Where Smoking sometimes hedged its satiric bets to make sure we knew Eckhart's Nick Naylor was really a good guy at heart, Up in the Air views Bingham with considerably greater ambivalence.

Jason Reitman on the set of Up in the Air.
Dale Robinette
Jason Reitman on the set of Up in the Air.
Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in Up in the Air.
Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in Up in the Air.

"I think I'm growing up, and my films seem to be becoming more real," says Reitman in his let-me-level-with-you way, adding that he recently caught parts of his two previous films on HBO and is learning from his mistakes. Growing up is something of a constant for Reitman, on-screen and off, perhaps because, at all of 32, he's still in the midst of it himself. In the last five years, he married, bought a house and became a father. He's also made three movies that, beyond their surface topicality, are all portraits of people questioning their beliefs and struggling to find their footing in the world.

"My films never touch on what the answers are when it comes to their polarizing subjects — they simply use [the subjects] as a location," Reitman says. "In Thank You for Smoking, cigarette smoking is the location for a movie about parenting. In Juno, teenage pregnancy is the location for a movie about people trying to decide what moment they want to grow up. It's about the loss of innocence — that's what that movie's about, and this movie's not about the economy. The economy is a setting to talk about how we complete our lives. Is it OK to be alone?"

Reitman's life so far might easily be mistaken for a stereotypical second-generation Hollywood legacy case. The oldest of three children born to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and actress Geneviève Deloir, he came of age on his father's film sets, from a visit to the Oregon location of Animal House (which the senior Reitman produced) when he was eleven days old to a summer job as a production assistant on the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Kindergarten Cop when he was thirteen years old. Reitman rubbed elbows with other scions of the rich and famous at the prestigious Buckley and Harvard-Westlake prep schools, where he claims, being the son of one of the most successful filmmakers of the 1980s brought him nothing but grief. "I was never a popular kid," he recalls. "I know people say that all the time, so let me repeat: I was never a popular kid. I was not well liked. All the movie thing brought was teasing and mockery. It never seemed something to be proud of."

More paralyzing for Reitman was the fear of following in his father's footsteps. "I knew the presumption of who I was," he says. "If you think, 'son of a famous director,' your immediate reaction is: no talent. Spoiled brat. Drug or alcohol problem. These are the going ideas. In addition to that, one of two things is going to happen to me in my career — either I will succeed but live in my father's shadow, or I will fail on a very public level. It's not like, 'Oh, I gave it a shot, it didn't work out, and nobody knows.' You go for it, everyone takes a look at it and goes, 'God, you are bad.'" So he halfheartedly enrolled at Skidmore College as a premed student. By the end of his first semester, Reitman's dad had convinced him to hang up his scrubs and give movies a try.

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