Up in the Air, writer-director Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, received six 2010 Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for George Clooney and Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Reitman and Sheldon Turner. But here’s the thing: when he turned the book into a movie, Reitman made some pretty substantial changes.
In the book, Ryan Bingham is a man whose job — other companies hire him to fire their no-longer-needed employees — requires him to spend most of his time traveling. He’s worn out, disillusioned, ready to chuck it all in. Ryan, divorced and lonely, has his eye on a better job, with a company called MythTech (although they haven’t shown any actual interest in him), and he’s courting a publisher for his self-help book, The Garage (but the publisher doesn’t seem all that keen). He sounds like one of those guys who’s got a pretty lousy life, but that’s okay, because it’s all about to change (except we can sense it probably isn’t).
The Ryan Bingham we see in the movie feels a bit…well, different.
There’s no denying it: Reitman has taken Ryan Bingham and reshaped him.
Ryan Bingham, as rewritten by Reitman and Turner, and inhabited by Clooney, is a smooth-talker, a charmer, a guy who loves his lifestyle. Unlike the book’s Ryan, this one truly is at home in airports. He loves them. And when his company threatens to pull its people out of the field (there’s a new scheme to fire people by video-conferencing), Ryan — you can see this on his face — is appalled, and frightened. He can’t do his job by remote control. He needs to be in the room with the guy, talking him through this traumatic event, offering words of encouragement, giving him the illusion somebody still cares about him. Oh, and this new scheme would plunk Ryan down in an office for the rest of his career. A terrifying thought.
This storyline doesn’t exist in the novel, but I figure that Ryan would probably be thrilled at the prospect of giving up the constant traveling. In the book, Ryan says, observing some fellow passengers, “Such inertia, such stillness. I envy it.” No way the movie’s Ryan would ever say that, or this: “I’ll be out soon…and I won’t miss it. Ever.”
Reitman has talked about the way current events impinged on the novel’s story, leading him to make some fundamental changes to the story (see this article at buzzsugar.com, for example). And you can definitely see the changes in the film. A minor subplot concerning someone who was fired; comments (not over-frequent, but not merely passing either) about the state of the economy, the fragility of the corporate structure, and the ever-increasing need for people like Ryan Bingham, who can tear someone’s life apart and somehow make him feel like it isn’t the end of the world.
The movie is not a period piece: this isn’t 2001, it’s 2009. Post-Enron, post-economic meltdown, post-job security. You can see it on the faces of the people Ryan fires (and for most of them, Reitman cast actual people who had been turfed out of their jobs, not actors): fear, anger, resentment, anguish. These are scary times we live in, and you can’t make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living without getting a little serious.
Reitman’s previous movies, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, were comedies (although not the same kind of comedy: Smoking is a sharp satire, Juno a quirky love story). Up in the Air balances on the thin line separating comedy from drama — not a “comedy-drama,” but a real story, set in the real world, that sometimes makes you laugh, and sometimes makes you want to cry a little.
Read the book, and see the movie. You’ll meet two very different men named Ryan Bingham. Or maybe one Ryan Bingham, at two points in his life: the 2001 version, desperate to get out of his rut, and the 2009 version, desperate to stay in.