Critic’s Notebook: Ivan Reitman’s Mainstream Craftsmanship Was a Gift

Reitman’s talent for recognizing bold, catchy comic premises, tailoring them to his performers’ strengths and delivering a reliable level of polish made him a uniquely effective commercial filmmaker.

Ivan Reitman, who died over the weekend at the age of 75, made his name in comedy at a moment when it’s practically impossible to know who should get credit for what. When an influx of Canadians from Second City collided with the sardonic Harvard boys at National Lampoon, there was more talent in the air than pot smoke. Good stuff was going to happen; and while certain on-camera performers would be the face of that success, the brilliance behind the scenes was amorphous.

As one of two producers of the Lampoon’s money-minting Animal House, Reitman both helped establish and ensured his place in a new kind of movie comedy. He quickly proved it wasn’t a fluke. Starting in 1979, he directed three back-to-back hits: Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters. Each remains the standard by which similar movies are judged. Usually — and certainly with the many misbegotten ‘Busters spinoffs — they’re found to be inferior.

The common denominator in those three pictures, of course, was Bill Murray. Meatballs was his first significant movie role. Stripes makes him look like he would’ve been a superstar no matter what, and maybe that’s true. But this was just one of many occasions when Reitman recognized a performer’s strengths and made sure they’d be seen by others, shaping a project so that actor and story served each other perfectly.

Sometimes that performer’s abilities weren’t easy to spot. Whatever one thinks about Arnold Schwarzenegger in the real world, his onscreen value grew immensely when Reitman’s Twins showed he could be funny, humanizing the Barbarian just as the seams were showing in his action-hero persona. With Kindergarten Cop, the director and star cemented a template followed by musclemen turned actors to this day.

Aside from narrative craftsmanship and commercial polish, it’s hard to identify any signature characteristic common to Reitman’s films. He was often drawn to scripts whose stories could be boiled down to a sound bite. What if a man could get pregnant? What if gargantuan Arnold Schwarzenegger and squat Danny DeVito were somehow Twins? What if a bunch of slobs joined the Army and became heroes?

Movies like that disappoint more often than not, when filmmakers appear to stop working after they perfect the elevator pitch; but Reitman’s, even when they weren’t bound for the comedy canon, rarely left audiences feeling burned.

Being hard to nail down sometimes ensures an artist’s longevity. In Reitman’s case, it’s easy to imagine a kid who watched Ghostbusters a dozen times at the theater but never felt the need to see the Reitman-produced Space Jam — whose biggest fans, in turn, might look back at the toga bros in Animal House and wonder who could find them funny.

As a producer, his interests were even more varied — from brief collaborations with fellow Canadians David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan to Howard Stern’s Private Parts, the animated cult film Heavy Metal and the Rear Window-ish Disturbia.

At the start of the 2000s, Reitman exec-produced two movies that wouldn’t have existed without Animal House, but were, to these eyes, much funnier: Road Trip and Old School, in which first-time feature director Todd Phillips turned two decades’ worth of college-misbehavior mythology into dumb-funny gems. The latter film provided a Reitman-esque platform for then-supporting actor Will Ferrell. Ferrell was hardly an unknown at the time; but as Meatballs did for Murray, Old School answered the question, “He’s great, but can he carry a movie by himself?”

Reitman was generous to the film community that gave him his start, donating a valuable plot of land for the skyscraper headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival. And his son Jason came along to make sure the Reitman name would be on movie screens for the foreseeable future, even as Ivan slowed his directorial output.

In May 2020, weary from lockdown and gobbling up comedies instead of comfort-food, I finally saw a movie I was too grown-up to watch as a teen: Meatballs, in which Murray plays a camp counselor who helps a sweet everykid (Chris Makepeace) loosen up. The cheerful nihilism of its most memorable scene (“It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!”) was a strange balm for my worried, angry soul. Later that night, I chose another Reitman film, the Capra-esque Dave, whose optimism about American democracy had an obvious escapist appeal in the final (please, let it be final) year of the Trump administration.

If I didn’t know Reitman’s filmography, I’d never have guessed the two movies were directed by the same man. Aside from warmth and humor, they only had one thing in common: It was hard to imagine how either film could be a better realization of what its writers imagined or could better have drawn out the aspects of its star that best suited that story. Every movie should be so lucky.