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."
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 it protagonist Ryan Bingham, a corporate hatchet man played by George Clooney, with considerably greater ambivalence.
"I think I'm growing up and my films seem to be becoming more real," says Reitman.
Growing up is something of a constant for Reitman, onscreen 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 become 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 okay 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 11 days old, to a summer job as a production assistant on the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Kindergarten Cop when he was 13. 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."
In a way, I suggest to Reitman, his movie career might be the product of a prolonged adolescent rebellion: the Beverly Hills "townie" who points his camera at the flatlands of the Middle West; the son of one of the industry's ultimate "high-concept" directors, determined to make small, character-driven movies. "I guess I'll say this," he answers after a considered pause. "My father is the child of Holocaust survivors who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia in the bottom of a boat. They wound up in Canada as refugees. My grandfather ran a car wash and a dry cleaner's. So it's no wonder that my father wants to make movies that just make people happy, where you walk out feeling better about life than when you walked in. It's much easier to be a satirist when you grow up in Beverly Hills and never worry where your next meal is coming from; it's much easier to sit there and talk about how complicated life is and not really worry about whether your characters are likable."
It's not so easy, however, to keep making those kinds of movies in a Hollywood that has rarely been less hospitable to films for adults and to filmmakers who think outside the toy/Happy-Meal/videogame box. "That's what has made my job difficult right now," says Reitman, adding that Up in the Air — a movie he's been trying to make since before Thank You for Smoking — was green-lit only due to Clooney's presence and Juno's robust $231 million worldwide gross. "I'm making films in a kind of netherworld," he continues. "I'm not an indie guy. At the same time, I'm not going to spend $80 million on a movie — that, for me, makes no sense. If you think of the studios having these slots they're trying to fill on their release schedules, none of those slots bear any resemblance to what I'm making."
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