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Ivan Reitman Was the King of the Regular-Guy Comedy

From ‘Animal House’ to ‘Dave,’ the late filmmaker was a modern-day Frank Capra in his championing of underdogs taking on the system — just with more sex jokes

Politicians are always trying to demonstrate they can relate to the “common man,” a meaningless term meant to indicate someone who’s unpretentious, utterly average and ordinary — somebody like you and me. And more often than not, they fail because they actually have contempt for regular Joes, and it shows — they don’t want to relate, they want to condescend. Likewise, movies often miss the mark when they attempt to dramatize the lives of everyday Americans — live in Hollywood too long, and you lose your connection to what it’s like to be a normal person going through a normal existence. 

Ivan Reitman, who died Saturday at the age of 75, was a master at making stories about regular guys. His best films were populated by some of the most hilariously ordinary dudes who seemed overwhelmed by everything: life, adulthood, women, holding onto a job. They never aspired to much, and yet Reitman saw in them the kind of anarchic spirit that was its own modest rebellion against the world’s cruelty and conformity. He championed the slobs in their endless battle against the snobs. He was Capra-esque — except his heroes were wiseasses, not Jimmy Stewart pillars of human decency.

Born in Czechoslovakia but fleeing with his family to Canada as a boy out of fear of the communist crackdown, Reitman became part of that country’s burgeoning comedy scene, befriending the likes of Dan Akyroyd and Rick Moranis, while also working as a producer for up-and-coming body-horror auteur David Cronenberg. But Reitman was destined to make his greatest impact in lighter fare, serving as a producer on 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House, a blockbuster comedy that signaled, along with Saturday Night Live, a new generation’s hostility toward the repressiveness they saw all around them. 

The losers and smart alecks of Delta Tau Chi thumbed their nose at the dean, who represented Nixon, Vietnam, everything that was corrupt in contemporary life. It had been Reitman’s idea to translate National Lampoon magazine’s irreverent humor to the big screen. “It was this combination of really smarty-pants intelligence mixed with silliness and parody and vulgarity that seemed to really speak to me as a kind of Baby Boomer just sort of hitting his 20s,” he said in 2013. “I thought, ‘Somebody should make a film that sort of speaks in this language.’”

Animal House was a rude, dude-friendly comedy that was hugely influential, pinpointing an underrepresented sector of the audience that was craving a rowdy, horny good time. The film saluted regular guys, viewing them as underdogs standing up to authority. The futility of their stupidity was entirely the point — adulthood was a crock, anyway, so why not stage a food fight?

When Reitman stepped behind the camera, he channeled Animal House’s us-against-the-world spirit, turning Meatballs into a celebration of the dorks who attended Bill Murray’s Camp Northstar. (Who would want to align with Camp Mohawk, the snotty, spoiled kids at the rival camp?) In a Reitman film, the privileged and the powerful were targets of derision — sure, his heroes may not be rich or even all that cool, but they had a scruffy integrity. Like John Belushi in Animal House, Murray (a fellow SNL cast member) was a fool, but he was our fool, speaking to the fiercely idiosyncratic attitude of the times. The New Hollywood of the 1970s valued rugged individualism, focusing on antiheroes who resisted the deadening blandness of the mainstream. Reitman’s movies echoed that spirit, just with more sex jokes.

Stripes made that anti-authoritarian stance even more explicit, sending Murray and Animal House co-writer Harold Ramis (who went on to direct and co-write Caddyshack) into the Army. For years now, from Top Gun to most any Michael Bay movie, Hollywood has happily served as pitchman for the military, but Stripes mocked the pageantry and self-importance of the armed forces, introducing female mud wrestling and crass humor. The characters were painfully mediocre dudes whose chief attribute was that they didn’t take anything seriously, a wholly rational position when dealing with the Army’s attempts to turn them into killing machines. Murray and Ramis’ characters don’t want to be the best that they can be — they’re just bored and looking for something to spice up their dull lives. That they become heroes along the way is as implausible as it is hysterical. 

Reitman’s biggest success came with 1984’s Ghostbusters, which amplified his comedic sensibility for the dawn of the blockbuster era. At first blush, this horror-comedy-thriller would seem to run counter to the ethos of his earlier films. Peter (Murray), Ray (Aykroyd) and Egon (Ramis) are scientists — hardly the kinds of guys you think of as slobs — and the big-budget trappings don’t necessarily suggest anarchic fun. And yet, Ghostbusters is among the snottiest, most sarcastic of event movies, juxtaposing its lavish effects and fate-of-the-world stakes with a what-me-worry attitude that suggested to the audience that these guys would save the day without ever breaking a sweat. The more expensive the set pieces looked, the more uproarious Murray’s eyerolls and Ramis’ deadpan delivery got — they were scientists, sure, but they were lovable losers fighting that uptight jerk from the EPA (William Atherton). Long before self-aware snarkiness infested tentpoles, Reitman’s Ghostbusters laughed at blockbuster movies’ sprawling ambitions and overblown action. It’s a film about a bunch of dudes who are annoyed that they have to be the good guys.

Hitting the zeitgeist squarely with Ghostbusters, he continued to show love for underdogs in his subsequent films. Twins proved that even someone as physically imposing as Arnold Schwarzenegger could be a regular Joe, pairing him with Danny DeVito as mismatched strangers who discover they’re twins. As raucous as his comedies could be, Reitman wasn’t afraid to be sweet, which helped elevate Twins’ thin-but-clever premise, underlining how these two characters find a sense of family in one another. Reitman’s regular guys often bonded with like-minded misfits, their outsider status a badge of honor, but in something like Twins, he examined the insecurity and vulnerability endemic to being marginalized. In Twins, Reitman argued that what the common man really needed was a hug. 

But his Capra-esque tendencies were never more apparent than in his last great film, 1993’s Dave, which has the same bighearted idealism as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — the difference being that, in Reitman’s film, Kevin Kline’s honorable Dave Kovic has to pretend to be the president (who he looks a lot like) after the Leader of the Free World has a stroke while screwing his mistress. Dave lacked the raucous energy of Reitman’s earlier work — by this point, he was working within the system, no longer an anarchic upstart — and yet, the film remains true to his long-held belief that regular Joes are purer and better than the privileged insiders who call the shots. Usually, his protagonists enjoy making sarcastic asides, but Dave legitimately wants to make the world a better place — for once, Reitman’s underdog engages directly with the system he knows is crooked.

You can see traces of his regular-Joe theme in later movies — My Super Ex-Girlfriend is about a normal dude (Luke Wilson) dating a superhero (Uma Thurman) — but the results weren’t nearly as inspired. It could also have been that his moment had passed. Hollywood comedies still featured ordinary dudes — the Hangover movies immediately spring to mind, as does a lot of Judd Apatow’s work — but his films’ broad, wiseass slobs-versus-snobs tone was assimilated in everything from Porky’s to Revenge of the Nerds. Plus, Reitman’s oeuvre focused so much on regular guys that they could feel like narrative sausage fests, rarely interested in the male heroes’ female counterparts, who were usually put into the role of potential girlfriend or sexual conquest. Animal House’s frat house became the target audience for so many of his movies, the jokes often sophomoric and coarse. His films could be so myopic in their championing of fairly well-off straight white guys that they rarely seem concerned with anyone else.

That said, by all accounts Ivan Reitman was a lovely guy with a terrific family. (His son Jason, who earned his father his only Oscar nomination as producer of Up in the Air, has struggled to escape his shadow, most recently directing the underwhelming Ghostbusters: Afterlife.) And as a producer, he never stopped believing in regular guys, backing movies about Howard Stern (Private Parts) and the Master of Suspense (Hitchcock). 

In his best films, Reitman understood his characters’ central dilemma — the sense that they hadn’t been handed a lot of breaks in life, and were up against smug assholes who were richer, smarter and better-connected. Politicians talk a lot about feeling the common man’s pain, but Reitman actually knew how to do that. It’s just that his protagonists recognized that the best way to deal with their problems was to get back at the bullies. And he invited us to root his underdogs on — to see ourselves in their eternal war with the deans and the stuffed shirts. In Reitman’s hands, being a regular guy seemed downright laudable. And awfully funny.