“Up in the Air”, the movie opening nationwide this month, stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer, motivational speaker and uber frequent flyer with the loathsome job of firing unlucky and unsuspecting employees for companies who prefer to outsource that task. Vera Farmiga plays the hotel lobby bar hottie who shares his Airworld.
I had the pleasure of seeing the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and was able to ask a few questions of the writer/director, Jason Reitman, the Oscar-nominated director of “Juno”, back with his latest film featuring a topic near and dear to my heart. I also spoke to Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, who plays Natalie, a fellow business traveler of Bingham’s.
Airworld is a mythical world that many high-flying frequent flyers find themselves being sucked into as they go about their daily lives at 33,000 feet–keenly described by Walter Kirn in the book of the same title on which this movie is based. “What I liked about the book was–here’s a man who is obsessed with miles and travel and the idea of living hub to hub who fires people for a living,” said Reitman. “I thought here are a lot of metaphors I want to talk about–the closing monolog where he talks about how most people will be greeted at night by children and dogs–and he will be that taillight flashing in the sky.”
Reitman drew on his own feelings about flying when writing the screenplay, even though he is a settled-in family man and loves that part of his life, “…there is something exhilarating when I go through airports looking at planes and thinking I could just go off and land somewhere, who knows where, and start fresh with no responsibility.”
Frequent flyers will be sure to identify with the film’s character, Bingham, who spends way too much time on airplanes. You’ll recognize him as the well-mannered, but slightly odd management consultant or business owner who shares your air space on endless flights. You’ll laugh at his countless odd mannerisms and obsessions and notice the subtle hints that there is a seriously dark side to this guy’s life. It’s amusing and yet depressing because of the nomadic nature of his work.
The movie does a very convincing job of describing a frequent flyer’s relationship to the skies. But as you might guess in 108 minutes, there’s really no attention to the details of what it’s really like to fly. Film critics no doubt will judge this movie based on its cinematic appeal (and it will be will be a bona fide critical and audience darling). Fair enough, that’s what they should do. But I’ll judge this movie based on the life and times of a frequent flyer.
To log his 10 millionth frequent flyer mile, Bingham embarks on a complicated six-day, eight-city trip where he juggles business, family matters and a love affair. He will deal with absent car rental upgrades, a hotel stay in which he is not a member of their elite program, an airline captain who awards him his 10 millionth mile flying over Dubuque, Iowa (sorry for the spoiler), and talkative seatmates. I asked Reitman why the change from the book at its one million miles to the movie with its 10 million miles. “I had a long conversion with American Airlines about this … we came to the decision that if they were flown status miles they should be 10 million.” And regarding the captain who awards him his 10 millionth mile, “They [American Airlines] loved the promotion so much they said ‘we should start doing that.'”
Along the way you’ll notice a few key product placements for American Airlines, Hilton HHonors and Hertz’s #1 Gold Club. When asked if Reitman struggled with using real product placement in the film he said, “Not for even a second. You either have real names or all of a sudden it becomes a satire. I feel my entire life has been in a logo world so I enjoy portraying reality. By the way, I keep my airline card in my pocket.”
Let me make one thing very clear to those fellow frequent flyers who will no doubt flock to see this movie in your hopes of identifying with the various nuances of elite cards, the pursuit of miles and ‘Aha!’ moments of ‘that’s me!’. In looking for those details, you could be missing out on a very good movie. So keep that in mind, or be prepared to see the movie twice, once for your miles and again for the movie itself.
But beyond the miles, beyond identifying with a road warrior, beyond the story plot that says that no man is–or at least no man should be–an island, the genuine stars of this film could very well be the cameos featuring real-life interviews of people who have lost their jobs. This will surely strike a chord with economic downturn weary audiences. Says Reitman, “I started writing the script six years ago when the economy was much different and I wrote it as a satire and all the scenes where people got fired were funny scenes. And life changed, the world changed, so these scenes stopped being funny.” He decided to use real workers who had been laid off, “… it all got very emotional and real, very hard to shoot and very hard to cut. But I’m very proud of that.”
About her own travel experience, Farmiga said, “I wish you could see my wallet. I have every single airline–my wallet looks like George Costanza’s with the sugar packs. The problem is you can’t consolidate them into one card.”
And Anna Kendrick, who plays fellow traveler Natalie in the film, admits that she’s not exactly the travel professional she portrays in the film, “I’m a nightmare in airports. I forget to swipe the thing, I don’t know my SkyMiles number and airports are my personal hell. I wished that this movie would somehow just import its knowledge of how to deal with airports.”
Is the movie based on reality? Well, director Jason Reitman told me that two years ago he did a mileage run in December from Los Angeles to Chicago just to re-qualify for his Executive Platinum status with American AAdvantage, “I flew into Chicago, picked up a pizza, got back on the plane and flew back to Los Angeles.”
That’s real enough for me. He does know the game.
Rating: Five upgrades