Did Jason Reitman Save Walter Kirn’s Novel?


September 11, 2001: planes were crashing, hearts were breaking, and Walter Kirn’s most recent novel, Up in the Air, was plummeting in sales. It could have had something to do with the fact that the cover featured men in suits whizzing around and plummeting to the ground like rogue jets. (One of them was even on fire.) Nevertheless, the story of Ryan Bingham, a frequent-flyer-mile-hoarding management consultant who specializes in firing corporate workers seemed doomed for anonymity. Then, in 2005, Thank You For Smoking director Jason Reitman pulled through, locking down George Clooney as leading man in the book’s film adaptation.

Sure, Kirn isn’t exactly a struggling writer like Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody was before Reitman discovered her prickly prose. He’s a fairly accomplished Princeton grad with writing credits in pretty much every major magazine and a few books under his belt, including Thumbsucker (turned indie film smash) but surely being part of an Oscar-buzzy project couldn’t hurt his career (or book sales, should it win Best Picture).

Please let this not be crap,” is what Kirn thought to himself before screening the film at Reitman’s house last summer, he explains in a first person piece on The Daily Beast. And crap, it is not. The timely, soulful film is witty, visually stunning, and most importantly makes you think. The montages of everyday Joe-Schmo’s getting canned hit home. (Interestingly, Reitman used people who had recently been fired to play the roles.) The main character’s total detachment from reality does, too. When Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the pipsqueak protégée, comes up with a video-conferencing method for the firing brigade to use thus eliminating the need for those constant business trips, Bingham’s entire way of life is threatened. Cue: self-reflection and one damn good movie.

Kirn’s own reaction was a little different, but luckily, just as positive: “After the screening, I found myself stuck, unable to stand back up. I was trapped in an eerie artistic fifth dimension, feeling misty-eyed and heavy-limbed. The movie’s ending was partially responsible, but there was something deeper at work. For years and years, Ryan Bingham had been lost, but now he’d been found (looking better than before), exhumed from his little crypt inside my brain. The fellow no longer belonged to me. He belonged to Reitman, to Clooney, to the audience.”

Up in the Air is currently in limited release. It opens nationwide on Christmas Day.