TORONTO — “Up in the Air” director Jason Reitman says his new film features George Clooney in one of his most vulnerable performances, but on Saturday the actor was in familiar form as the uber-charming cut-up entertaining a packed press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Surrounded onstage by Reitman and “Up in the Air” co-stars Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Melanie Lynskey and Amy Morton, Clooney answered most questions with a quick quip and a flash of his megawatt grin.
Wearing a slate-grey blazer and a striped white dress shirt, Clooney held court on pretty much any topic that arose — from trying to sneak dogs onto airplanes to his disdain for online social networking.
“I would rather have a prostate exam on live television by a guy with very cold hands than have a Facebook page,” Clooney said over a never-ceasing chorus of popping flashbulbs.
He directed plenty of gentle potshots at his co-stars. When one reporter posed a question to the film’s talent, Clooney bristled: “You’re using that word ‘talent’ a little loosely.” He took particular pleasure in his light-hearted torture of the pixie-ish Kendrick, who played his foil in the film.
After offering generous praise for the rest of the cast, Clooney clarified: “these people made this film work — except for her, Anna.”
And when someone noted that Reitman wrote the role of Natalie Keener — a focused, precocious efficiency expert whose ambitious plans threaten to upend Clooney’s character’s carefully guarded wandering lifestyle — specifically for Kendrick, Clooney quipped: “I thought you wrote that for Reese Witherspoon?”
But he saved his best barbs for his own career missteps.
On his unsuitability for big-budget Hollywood tentpoles, he said: “I buried the Bat franchise once, I don’t really have many other ways to go,” referencing his 1997 bomb “Batman & Robin.”
He took a similar tact when asked about his recent tendency toward making comedies.
“Well, ‘Leatherheads’ ended up being a drama,” he said of the ill-received 2008 film, which he directed.
But unlike “The Men Who Stare at Goats” — the other film Clooney is promoting during his trip to Toronto — “Up in the Air” is not, strictly speaking, a comedy.
The film casts Clooney as a “career transition consultant” — a travelling corporate downsizer whose job is to inform people that they’ve been laid off.
The Montreal-born Reitman began writing the film years ago as a corporate satire, replete with humorous scenes of people getting fired. When the economy took a turn for the worse, those scenes “weren’t so funny anymore” and he took a different approach.
Filmed in such stark, economically depressed locales as Detroit, St. Louis and Wichita, Kan., “Up in the Air” features heart-rending testimonials from 25 real people who lost their jobs.
“As we were working on the film, along the way, it became clear that it was less and less a comedy and much more about real people,” Clooney said. “Suddenly it felt more timely than ever. It felt like the exact right moment to be making the film.”
Clooney’s character is a super-efficient business traveller who’s only comfortable while on the move. Unencumbered by familial or personal obligations, he cherishes anesthetized airport bars and dreads his rare trips to his one-bedroom apartment in Omaha, Neb.
He also obsessively compiles frequent-flyer miles and gives motivational speeches in which he urges his audiences to stop being weighed down by belongings and the baggage that comes with messy personal relationships.
Eventually, that worldview is called into question when he develops a romance with a like-minded traveller (Farmiga) and begins to search for purpose in his life.
Clooney — one of the most famous bachelors on the planet — acknowledges that audiences may draw a connection between the actor and his character in the film.
Reitman had his heart set on Clooney for the role, and travelled to his home in Italy to pitch him on the script. Clooney says it was an easy decision.
“I came down and I threw (the script) on the table and said: ‘OK, I’ll do it, let’s go,”’ he recalled. “That’s sort of how it worked out for us. Then we ate pizza.”
“I love how a casual moment for you is one of the great moments of my life,” Reitman replied with a laugh.
But Reitman said it took courage for Clooney to take on the role.
“The first time you read the script, you said you (saw) connections and that’s what excites you about the script, and you want to stare it straight in the eyes,” Reitman said as he turned to face Clooney. “And I thought that was incredibly brave. ”
“And I think this is one of the most vulnerable performances you’ve ever done. … This type of emotionality was a great gift and I’ll appreciate it the rest of my life.”
“Up in the Air” opens on Dec. 4.