Would Up in the Air Have Been Better With a Twist Ending?

Yesterday, a reader of Jeffrey Wells’s blog posited a theory that Up in the Air director Jason Reitman had once intended to keep the original ending of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel, on which his movie is based. (Warning: This post contains heavy spoilers for both versions of Air.) He wonders if certain parts of the film aren’t vestiges of an earlier version whose finale hewed closer to Kirn’s and might’ve been more affecting. By the way, Reitman denied all of this last night, but it’s still interesting. Want to know what might’ve been?

Here’s the book’s ending: In the final pages, we learn for the first time that main character Ryan Bingham has been suffering from blackout seizures, will donate his frequent-flier miles to children’s hospitals, and is headed to the Mayo Clinic for a checkup he’s worried could yield bad news. None of this happens in the movie, but there’s a slight nod to it with that early line about cancer — “Would you like the can, sir?” — which was not in the novel, and in that scene in which George Clooney coldly explains to Anna Kendrick (whose entire character Reitman invented for the film), “We all die alone.”

Hollywood Elsewhere reader Matthew Morettini yesterday pointed out that, for the movie, such a reveal might’ve better explained Bingham’s obsession with accumulating 10 million frequent-flier miles and his doomed, out-of-character attempt to connect with Alex (Vera Farmiga), which betrayed his whole “What’s in Your Backpack?” philosophy: “I’m not arguing that movie needed the twist; it works brilliantly without it. But the threads of this lost ending are woven through the film, and I do think it was there at the start. I think the whole story was started down that path and I think Clooney played the character as a goner, and that Reitman had second thoughts in post.”

But Jason Reitman disagrees! In a conference call with with Peter Sciretta and Kris Tapley, he explained:

“You find out at the end of the book that the character is dying of terminal disease and that he’s going to the mayo clinic. That’s something I never really wanted to include in the movie. I never shot a scene that suggested that the character was dying. For me, at the end of the movie, he’s making a choice about where he wants to go for the rest of his life, and certainly he does have a rest of his life.

“The ‘Do you want the can, sir?’ scene came out of a real moment in which I was on a plane and I overheard a flight attendant ask someone, ‘Do you want the can, sir,’ and I literally did a double take, then I realized what she was saying. It’s inclusion had to do with two things. One, I thought it would be a cute nod to the people who’ve read the book, and two, more importantly, it kind of speaks to the idea of how he collects things and the way we obsess over travel in the sense that it’s a disease, being that addicted to traveling and the obsessiveness over miles or any kind of fruitless collection is like having a disease.”

For us, Kirn’s book was so drastically different from the movie — there’s no Natalie or teleconferencing or any threat of Bingham being called in from the road; Vera Farmiga’s character isn’t (surprise!) married and a mom, she’s actually someone Bingham fired and doesn’t remember (presumably owing to the seizures and his failing memory); and, despite that, the novel contains very little actual firing — that we never really wondered why Reitman hadn’t included the appointment at the Mayo Clinic, since there are so many other major plot points left out too.

We sort of like the ending Reitman went with, and giving George Clooney a terminal disease in the final minutes with only the “Can, sir?” line to warn us probably would’ve felt cheap (in the book, the foundation for the seizure thing is laid a lot better, obviously) — but it would’ve also given Bingham deeper motivation to do pretty much all the things he does. We guess that’s just one of the pitfalls of adapting a book and keeping only a skeleton of the premise.

Bingham vs. Cancer? [Hollywood Elsewhere]
Jason Reitman Responds to Rumors of an Up in the Air Cancer Subplot [/Film]

Would Up in the Air Have Been Better With a Twist Ending?