"Up in the Air" has undergone the rarest of flights: It was delayed for a long time and its course was altered, yet it has arrived right on time.
"Up in the Air" might be the timeliest movie of the year. Hard times and the frightening prospect of unemployment are at the center of the movie, which many are calling an Academy Award favorite. Regardless of its Oscar prospects, it's unquestionably of the moment.
In the latest film from director Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Thank You for Smoking"), George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who essentially lives in airports and hotels, contentedly jet-setting around the country as a contractor hired to fire people.
Reitman began writing the screenplay — based on Walter Kirn's 2001 novel by the same name — six years ago when times were flush. He then conceived the film as a comedic satire.
"I wrote the scenes tonally consistent with a booming economy," Reitman said in a recent interview. "By the time we were making the movie, a million people had lost their jobs. It was more appropriate to handle the scenes with a certain amount of gravity and authenticity."
Reitman believes the best filmmaking comes from capitalizing on accidents, and essentially, he had one big, ugly accident in the economic meltdown.
"You have instincts that are driving you and then things happen along the way," says the 32-year-old writer-director. "It's how you react as things happen that determines whether a film turns out to be good."
Other things changed, too. He married the writer Michele Lee in 2004 and the couple had a child two years later. The success of "Juno" (four Oscar nominations, including a win for Diablo Cody's screenplay) also catapulted the career of Reitman, whose father is the esteemed comedy director Ivan Reitman.
"Over the course of writing it, I went from a single guy living in an apartment to a married guy with a kid and a mortgage," says Reitman. "I started to understand the value of companionship. And these are things that my character had to go through himself."
Reitman rewrote his script. One significant addition was inserting testimonials from regular people who had lost their jobs during the downturn. The production placed ads in St. Louis and Detroit newspapers under the guise of a documentary film about the recession.
Hundreds applied and Reitman and his crew interviewed many of them about their experience: "It would get aggressive, emotional, angry, sad," says the director.
One of those that made it into the film was Kevin Pilla of St. Louis, who had lost his job as a design engineer for an electronics company. In the film, he talks about the difficulty of breaking the news to his wife. (Pilla has since gotten a new job.)
"Jason had a really good perspective of what a lot of people were going through with the economy the way it is," said Pilla. "For him to be willing to tell our story was a really exciting thing for me."
That the timing for "Up in the Air" should be so good is ironic considering how poor it was for Kirn's book. It was published shortly before Sept. 11, 2001. Being set so predominantly on airplanes, its sales quickly dropped. The studio that first picked up the option on adapting the book soon dropped it.
"It's very strange that eight years later, it's very timely in another way about another difficult situation," says Kirn. "On both a metaphorical and a literal level, it is a recession-era tale. It was not written during a recession, but it was always a book about what happens when accumulation and business-is-business as an attitude and a lifestyle runs dry."
Films that deal directly with work life and our satisfaction from it are rare. Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" — in which Tony Curtis' insurance man navigates his way in a bureaucracy — is generally viewed a classic.
Reitman, though, intentionally avoided watching it (or any other great film) while making "Up in the Air." He worries that anything so good would leave him too in awe and sap his confidence. (Instead, he watches bad horror films.)
"A lot of movies are about a subgroup — cops and robbers in this part of L.A. or something," says Kirn. "But this movie gives me an expansive feeling that it's speaking for our common experience."
Another aspect of that experience portrayed in "Up in the Air" is the increasingly omnipresence of technology. The characters carry Blackberries like cowboys holstered revolvers. Meaningful events happen by way of text message.
"It's very of the moment not because people are losing their jobs but because it deals with the idea of a lack of human connection on so many levels," says Reitman. "There are so many aspects in which life has become more lonely — some for good, some for bad. That's what the movie really explores and I think that's really an element of 2009 — the amount of friends you have on Facebook that you actually never see."