By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 6, 2009 at 4:25AM
Folks lined up for two hours on a rainy Telluride Saturday to get into Up in the Air. Hundreds were turned away. Writer-director Jason Reitman (and obsessive airline mile collector) played the crowd like a pro, hoping that the movie would live up to their expectations. He didn't need to worry. The director, who debuted Juno here two years ago at the same theater, delivers a winner. Loosely based on Walter Kirn's novel, Reitman's updated movie, which he started working on six years ago, has become, with the economic downturn, far more timely. It's a witty, charming and moving exploration of a world we all recognize.
It's about the loneliness of a long-distance air traveller--a commitment-phobe not unlike George Clooney, who decided to stare that aspect of himself in the face, Reitman said after the film. "To know me is to fly with me," says Ryan Bingham, who wings around the country to gently but sternly deliver lay-off news that bosses are too chicken to do on their own.
The movie reveals where we are now. The opening credits set the tone, as a zingy cover of "This land was made for you and me" accompanies a montage of fly-over spots. Bingham starts up a flirtation with a fellow-traveler (Vera Farmiga) as they slap down rival credit cards and compare flier miles and mile high club banter. He wants to break the 10 million miles mark --in the past year he spent 43 days at home. The rest he was on the road. She seems to be his perfect match.
But times are changing and Ryan's air-travel miles are endangered when his job as a downsizer no longer requires flying: they will give the news via video conferencing instead. Young corp exec Anna Kendrick (Rocket Science) shadows Ryan on the road as he attempts to show her the more human face of delivering bad news. The movie reveals the gap between the tech-savvy younger generation and their elders. At one point Kendrick is on the phone with her boyfriend and says, "I don't even think of him that way, he's old." Clooney does a double take in the mirror. She later tells him he's in a "cocoon of self-banishment." Looking lean, fit and grey, Clooney opens up here, moving from cockily confident "I am a rock" status to yearning vulnerability.
The movie does not offer easy solutions. Reitman interviews 25 real people who lost their jobs, who are genuinely moving. Over the closing credits he uses a song about job loss given to him by 50-ish Kevin Renick during filming on audiotape. "I like to ask questions with my movies," Reitman said at the Q & A. "This is the most personal movie I've made and could be the most personal movie I'll ever make."
Award season beckons. This one is in the hunt.