Friday, March 05, 2010

Modern Maestros: Jason Reitman

Robert here, continuing my series on important contemporary directors. Since Up in the Air is up for Oscars this weekend, I thought we'd feature Jason Reitman. I expect he'll be a bit of a controversial choice considering he's only made three movies and I know there are those of you out there who feel lukewarm about all of his critical acclaim. But with two of those three films scoring Best Picture and Director nominations you can't ignore his cinematic success. So let's talk about him.

Maestro: Jason Reitman
Known For: Topical, slice-of-life dramedies that go down easy with hidden complexity.
Influences: Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and yes Ivan Reitman.
Masterpieces: No masterpieces yet, but he is promising.
Disasters: None
Better than you remember: Juno and Up in the Air have gotten a lot of dissent, though neither is a bad movie and some of the hate is unwarranted.
Box Office: Juno has grossed 145 mil.
Favorite Actor: J.K. Simmons has appeared and memorably so in all of his films.

What is the current state of quality comedy? Let's look at some examples from this past year. There's the spoof (Zombieland), the indie ((500) Days of Summer), the cerebral indie (A Serious Man) and the "dude" movie (The Hangover). But what happened that that Billy Wilder, James Brooks comedy about people you know; movies that take place not in heightened reality but in reality reality? Jason Reitman is making them. And he's utilizing the self awareness of the spoof, the soundtrack of the indie, the abstract endings of the cerebral indie and the character arcs of the "dude" movie. He's mixing together these universal comedic elements intelligently and ending up with films that seem effortless, but aren't. Then there's that term "topical" which eventually and often unfairly turns into "dated". But all movies (and art) are pieces of history that reflect their time. Times change but people don't and that's why Reitman smartly knows to make films that are essentially about people. And yes of course the films tackle the themes of lobbyist influence in government, teen pregnancy and recession but only in terms of how they affect people.


The people in Reitmans' films start out brash and confident and eventually come to the realization that they lack the intelligence or understanding or safety in the world they thought they had. In two cases the result is to accept though learn from the= defeat (although in Thank You For Smoking, the tobacco lobbyist get's his groove back.) These aren't exactly the happiest endings ever played for a mainstream audience. And that's something really worth celebrating about Jason Reitman's films. They eschew a simplistic explanation of the world in favor of something a bit more resembling reality. And while we're talking about the complexity of his characters' arcs let's not overlook the essential contributions of his actors. Reitman doesn't get enough credit for his ability to work with actors. He helped Aaron Eckhart take a character who should have been a likable bad guy and turned him into a genuine good guy. He worked with unknown Ellen Page making her Juno into someone that had real depth, and he took George Clooney's craft to new heights by highlighting all of his best assets. Not to forget some of the more memorable supporting performances by the likes of J.K. Simmons, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, Allison Janney, Jennifer Garner, J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride and of course, J.K. Simmons.

I feel sometimes that Jason Reitman is a victim of internet-fueled overhype. Both Juno and Up in the Air came out of Toronto with far too much ballyhoo to ever live up to. When promoted as the "best film of the year" often there's no place but a film to go but down. And while neither Up in the Air and Juno are flawless (it's taken everything in me not to mention Diablo Cody's script... too late), they're certainly welcome additions to the state of modern comedy. Up next for Reitman is an adaptation of Joyce Maynard's coming-of-age novel Labor Day. It looks like more topical fare for a man who has developed a real sense of the times.


Anonymous said...

Seriously, Jason Reitman?


anon -- did you read the article. I think he makes a good case.

frankly i'm not really sure where my friends who HATE up in the air are coming from. Every time i hear a dissenting opinion it seems as glibly defined as they say the film is.

the biggest gripe toward the film that i don't understand is the anger about rejecting Clooney's solitary lifestyle in favor of the heteronormative coupledom.

I don't think it's actually that horrifying to suggest that people need other people or that most people who are lonely or who choose to live in an isolated way might question their decisions that reinforce this as they age. I think that's just common sense. any body who lives in a non "normative" way will end up questioning it and having to reevaluate as they make it up because society does ask us to conform.

it's not like the movie ends with george clooney married and happy that his new wife is prengant and a "FAMILY MAN!"

anyway. i think the ending is interesting.

the only issue i really have with the movie is that people getting fired montages. I'm not sure i can support mixing real life footage in with acted/scripted.

Jorge Rodrigues said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE Up in the Air and I really can't seem to understand as well where all the hate is coming from. And my main problem is, like you said Nathaniel, their complaints don't even make sense...

Overrated? Yes, because his movies tend to acquire overhype in just 2-3 days after their TIFF showing and many people build unrealistic expectations about them like it'll cure AIDS or something like that.

Misunderstood? Also yes. I think Reitman is a true genius and I'm beginning to think he'll only be appreciated once he retires from movies.

UP IN THE AIR may be flawed and I have some problems with some parts of the script and with Kendrick's character and all but everyone has to admit it's one hell of a movie and its social, cultural and economic relevance is top-notch quality. It's not a masterpiece but it's pretty close. It stands on its own as a great representative of our era.

We'll see in about 10-20 years' time which films from 2009 will be considered classics and which ones (coff Precious coff) will be forgotten.

James T said...

Nathaniel, I'm lad you brought this up.

I am one of the people who didn't like Up In The Air. For me, the movie did nothing more than take a loner and turn him into a man who seeks companionship. It wouldn't be a problem, except there are a million movies like that. The reason he did it was because an ungry, but not really original (I mean, was it the first time he heard all that?) speech by a young (but "very wise", at least for two minutes) woman made him realize that was what he actually wanted from life?

And later, the lion has to be victimized by an unnecessarily bitchy Farmiga so that we feel surprised when we end up feeling sorry for him.

notanotherblog said...

Thank God there wasn't a "masterpiece" listed. Because if Reitman supposedly has one, and Christopher Nolan supposedly has zero, I would have thrown an analog TV down the stairs.

Robert said...

I agree that the "bachelor learning that he needs love" is common Hollywood tripe. But I don't think Up in the Air applies.

For starters, the movie doesn't judge Clooney's lifestyle (unlike say that dreadful Nicolas Cage flick The Family Man, from a few years back where the opening was all about just how shallow his bachelor life was). The movie does a great job of making us understand why Clooney likes his life. It makes us want to live his life of airport bars and casual sex with Vera Farmiga.

And the ambiguous ending saves it from Hollywood cliche too. I didn't interpret it as a man realizing he needed love, family, etc in his life, as much as a man at the end of his journey returning to where he started and understanding it for the first time (to paraphrase Kipling).

Jorge Rodrigues said...

Notanotherblog, I completely agree. If Nolan does not have a masterpiece, then Reitman does not deserve to have as well.

Robert said...

notanotherblog -- clearly I agree but still, I'm just some guy on the internet with a random opinion. Don't punish the poor old TV over that.


and that's a great point about Reitman's hype. I think both JUNO and UP IN THE AIR might be better regarded if they had just opened and found their audiences (which they would have) rather than the festival route.

he strikes me as a mainstream enough filmmakers that it's a little odd that it has to be the festival/critical/awards route to opening.

Unknown said...

Am the only one whose favorite Reitman film thus far is Thank You For Smoking? In my opinion, it was one of the smartest and funniest films of the 00s.

Unknown said...

Am the only one whose favorite Reitman film thus far is Thank You For Smoking? In my opinion, it was one of the smartest and funniest films of the 00s.

Danny King said...

Agree with a lot here, Robert. He's certainly making the best comedies in the business today, because he also knows how to incorporate emotional impact, particularly displayed in Up in the Air and Juno, and to a lesser extend in Smoking.

I actually finished reading the Maynard novel he is currently adapting, and I think it has a lot of promise; at the very least, it has a very unique premise for a love story that Reitman can hopefully do something great with.

As he stated in an interview with Roger Ebert, and from what the book said to me, this film will be a lot different from his first three. This one feels like it will lean much more heavily to the dramatic side. The lead character is also a teenager like that of Juno, but it's a male, and he's not talky-talky like Page's character was.

I can't wait to see what he does in the future.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

No, no, I'd say Anonymous 8:06 makes a fair point.

To make me swallow Reitman as a 'Modern Maestro', you'd have to present me with easily missed, hidden subtexts and a revelatory perspective to his work. But nothing about Reitman's films is easily missed or revelatory. Everything is shallow, strained and underlined. So, much as I appreciate Robert's solid defence case, I'd argue that success with Ampass doesn't earn either the 'Modern' or the 'Maestro' part of that stamp. That said, based on their critical and popular success, his films certainly warrant discussion, so this Modern Maestro episode - though it should perhaps come with an asterisk - is still totally worthy.

So - about the films. In Thank You for Smoking Reitman is more concerned with you finding him fabulously hipster sassy than with making a productive point about anything relevant. In Juno, several of Diablo Cody's more irritating tendencies get the better of him, but he handles his ensemble admirably, so I'll give him credit for that (he's sort of like the straight white middle-class hipster Lee Daniels, hey?). In Up in the Air though, he regresses - from his cast of one-note (or at best, two-note) stereotypes, he only lets Vera Farmiga emerge as a believable human being (until the 'twist' retroactively renders her into a plot device). Also he overreaches every five minutes or so for an unearned note of profundity.

Yes the premise is familiar, but that isn't the problem. Half of Wilder's films plumbed familiar premises for wit and energy and magic. Woody Allen only ever works off the one premise but for decades managed to spin it into Chekhovian levels of insight and humanity. These are the two filmmakers that Reitman is most often compared to - and in my heart I truly believe that every time this happens, an angel in movie heaven vomits.

PJ said...

I came away from Up in the Air slightly baffled, because a movie I expected to be good, great even, completely underwhelmed. The main problem I had was that it had a lot of trouble deciding what kind of film it was. The 'jaded older man showing the young protege the ropes' storyline didn't sit well with the 'jaded older man getting together with the similarly jaded older woman' storyline at all. And the problem was not that they were bad in conjunction - the film was very entertaining when they merged, I'm thinking specifically George and Vera's sit down with Anna - but that it spent large amonunts of time with one before switiching to the other, without any real progression in either.

What was more galling for me was that the tone of the film began getting wildly inconsistent at the end, the wedding sequence being the most glaring example. Overlooking that inconsequential and trite pep talk by George to his brother-in-law to be, when the lens became sun-strewn as it focused on George and Vera sitting in the pews I was finding it hard to stop rolling my eyes. To find meaning we should just get to get to know the people we love better? I mean, deep much? (sorry for the snark!) It's just that the protagonist is so far from being real in any sense that all the insight he gains comes off as a little hollow.

It's a shame because the thematic concerns raised by the film - those relating to the current economic climate, the alientation fostered by our modern consumer culture etc. - provide a really solid base for the film, which it sorta starts to use smartly, until squandering it at the end for wild turns of plots (i.e. Vera's character for example). I'm sure it will improve on a second viewing, but I was unimpressed, and on the strength of Reitman's previous efforts, and the glowing word of mouth, really disappointed.

Danny King said...

@ Y Kant: How can you say Anonymous 8:06 makes a good point? He does absolutely nothing to support his opinion.

Anonymous said...

I interpreted Up in the Air's meaning to be that Clooney's character had actually accepted his lifestyle, and was fine with it. His experience with Farmiga merely reinforced what he already believed...people usually disappoint you. It's a bitter and pessimistic view of life, but then again, not so bitter if you take that disappointment and turn it into one great ride i.e. traveling, partying, doing a job you love, and hooking up with someone new every night. Not a bad way to live. And while Up in the Air obviously isn't glorifying that sort of life, it isn't condemning it, and is perhaps suggesting that for some people it's wholly necessary.

Anonymous said...

Whoops....I interpreted Up in the Air's ending to be*

Lucky said...

I love Up in the Air as well. My main problem with it would be the wedding scene, which seemed out of place and dragged a bit.

It can be considered as very "American" or "Hollywood", if you think he realised he needed to be in a relationship, but I don't think that's the point.

And I think Jason Reitman does qualify as a Modern Maestro.

Henry said...

I hardly think it's Reitman's fault that Juno got the backlash that it did. It was more the overwhelming critical reaction coming out of Toronto (which I actually think is warranted; I like the movie) and criticisms against Diablo Cody's screenplay and dialogue.

I wish Thank You For Smoking had a better ending. But the first about half of the film is pretty good.

I plain love Up in The Air (despite it hitting a little too close to home because I was fired from my last job) and wished it was legitimately contending for Best Picture tomorrow (I think everyone acknowledges it's a two-horse race at this point and Up in The Air is probably a distant third).