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'Juno' director turns 'Air' into success

By Todd Leopold, CNN
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'Up in the Air'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jason Reitman, director of "Juno," likes to make movies for adults
  • New film "Up in the Air" has main character who fires people, stars George Clooney
  • Reitman, 32, changed tone of work as financial crisis got worse
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Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Jason Reitman likes to say he makes movies for adults, "which is different," he quips, "than making adult movies."

Moreover -- in an era when Hollywood seems intent on making sequels to sequels or dumbed-down comedies -- he's done it successfully, impressing critics and moviegoers.

His latest film, "Up in the Air," which came out in limited release Friday, is on its way. It's received glowing reviews from critics, and on Thursday, the National Board of Review named the work its top film of 2009. After a first weekend in just 15 theaters, it earned an outstanding $1.2 million at the box office.

Reitman has pulled off this trick before. "Thank You for Smoking" (2006), which he directed before he turned 30, was nominated for two Golden Globes and earned back almost six times its $6.5 million budget. "Juno," which was released in late 2007, earned four Oscar nominations -- including a best director nod for Reitman -- and more than $200 million worldwide on an equally skimpy budget.

Both films tackled topics studio heads would usually blanch at. "Thank You for Smoking" made a hero of Aaron Eckhart's rather amoral tobacco lobbyist; "Juno" celebrated a pregnant teenager.

"If I have a skill as a filmmaker, it's finding accessible ways into tricky material," the 32-year-old director told CNN.

"Up in the Air" tells the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a "career transition specialist" (read: pink slip professional) who, when he's not empathetically laying off workers, spends most of his time traveling. He likes the remote life -- likes the mints on the hotel pillows and the generic cocoon of airport lounges -- but finds his life changing when he's challenged by a Young Turk (Anna Kendrick) with big ideas, and his feelings for a fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga).

Reitman is, in some ways, to the business born: His father is Ivan Reitman, director of "Ghostbusters" and producer of "Animal House." But he still seems less a "director," in the classic Hollywood sense of bold auteur, and more a quirky film geek.

He takes pictures of every reporter who interviews him and recently made a pie chart of the subjects he's been asked about on the "Air" tour (No. 1: Clooney, of course). He's cast J.K. Simmons ("The Closer") in each of his films, considering him a good-luck charm. He also dresses the part, looking casually unshaven, his clothes more comfortable than stylish.

Reitman's also able to turn on a dime. "Up in the Air," he observes, was originally going to be a satire, on the order of "Thank You for Smoking." But though the movie still shares some similarities with the cutting 2001 Walter Kirn novel on which it's based, Reitman (who co-wrote the script) incorporated much of today's post-financial meltdown nervousness, down to using actual fired workers in a number of scenes.

In the development, he turned the distant tone of the novel on its head, finding sweetness in the book's sometimes sour outlook.

"I heard a journalist recently say that the book is about a man who's losing it and the movie's about a man who's finding it," he said.

That has a lot to do with his own life, he adds.

"It took shape as I took shape," he says, noting in the years since he first picked up the book, he's gotten married and had a child. "As I started to figure out what was important in my life, I started figuring out what was important to Ryan."