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Clooney, Reitman, Up in the Air

George Clooney signs on to Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel, Up in the Air, starring as Ryan Bingham, “a management consultant, specializing in the lugubrious field of career transition counseling (i.e., he fires people for a living). But what Kirn’s airborne protagonist is really doing is pursuing his own private passion, his great white whale: accumulating one million miles in his frequent-flyer account.”

Just as GPS depends on triangulation to pinpoint a position, sometimes it takes a trio of films before we can triangulate the realm a new director hopes to stake out for himself. Following Thank You for Smoking and Juno with Up in the Air, Jason Reitman is creating intelligent grown-up comedies with a sharp edge of social commentary, involving borderline farcical situations in familiar settings. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Jason Reitman — America’s new Preston Sturges. (Comparisons to Sturges are about the highest praise I can give to a director.)

Up in the Air is one to keep an eye on, both as a serious contender for 2009 and as a potentially classic example of that rarest bird in Hollywood — a mature comedy with smart dialogue and cultural significance. Here’s a description of the novel:

Mocking the euphemisms of business speak is as easy as shooting fish in a designer barrel. But Kirn also takes on the corporate world’s weirdly mystical and paranoid side, its rhetoric of personal empowerment and its messianic devotion to gurus. Meanwhile, [Ryan Bignham’s] junket becomes progressively more surreal, complete with an evil nemesis as well as a mysteriously powerful firm called MythTech that’s working behind the scenes. And what’s worse, someone seems to have stolen his identity, assuming control of his credit cards and his all-important miles.

Is this model consumer being tracked as he makes his purchasing decisions, like an elk tagged by wildlife biologists? Or is he merely losing his mind? The ending answers these questions perhaps a little too neatly, but Kirn’s disturbing satire packs a mighty wallop nonetheless.

Imagine what George Clooney and Jason Reitman can do with that premise.