At the age of 30, Jason Reitman has directed a half dozen short films, two narrative features, and an episode of The Office. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing. He is beyond the usual Hollywood definition of "hot": he is, thanks to the runaway success of Juno, superheated, like the molten core of the sun.
At the age of 30, his father, Ivan Reitman, had directed one short film and two narrative features (the immortal Foxy Lady and Cannibal Girls). At that point of his career, it is safe to say he was as far from "hot" as possible: he was as cold as the far side of the moon, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned. Three years later, the success of Meatballs, especially in relation to its budget and its recognition as the one that made Bill Murray a film star, warmed things up for the senior Reitman, in much the same way that Thank You For Smoking would later warm up his son's career, raising expectations.
Thus it's interesting to compare Ivan Reitman's follow-up, Stripes, with his son's follow-up, Juno. Strictly in financial terms, Stripes was comparable to Juno, earning $85 million in 1981, a year in which only nine films broke the $50 million mark. (To be fair, Juno's budget, at $2.5 million, was only 1/4 of Stripes' reported budget.) Stripes wasn't nominated for any Academy Awards and Ivan has never been nominated, so that gives a leg up for Jason, but that's more a reflection of the Academy's malleable taste than any intrinsic merit. Though Stripes is remembered as a broad, mainstream comedy, I'd argue that it's just as edgy and independent as Juno, and displays some of the same borderline reactionary leanings as the newer film. If you've never seen Stripes, or haven't seen it in a while, here's the set-up: Bill Murray stars as John Winger, a ne'er do well New York City cab driver. In the course of a single day, he quits his job, his car gets repossessed, and his girlfriend breaks up with him. Bemoaning his fate to buddy Russell Ziskey (co-writer Harold Ramis), Winger seizes on the idea of joining the all-volunteer, peacetime Army as a way to improve his lot in life. It's a desperate move that the men quickly come to regret.
In the summer of 1981, the idea that anybody would want to join the Army was far-fetched to most of my generation. Six years removed from the end of the Vietnam War, the country was still reeling from its effects. War veterans had been generally reviled upon returning to their homeland, with little understanding or sympathy for what they had experienced. John Wayne was dead. Yet Ronald Reagan had stormed into office, with national defense as one of the cornerstones of his campaign. The previous fall had also seen Goldie Hawn join the Army in Private Benjamin, a popular success, demonstrating that audiences might be receptive to more military-based comedies.
Watched in that light, Stripes is of a piece with other raunchy, anti-authority slob comedies of that era. After Meatballs, Bill Murray starred as Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam, but then secured his place in the cinematic comedy hall of fame with his supporting performance as goofy groundskeeper Carl Spackler in Ramis' directorial debut, Caddyshack. In Stripes, Murray sounds as though he's improvising most of his lines; it's no discredit to the credited scriptwriters (Ramis, Len Blum and Dan Goldberg) to say that Murray twists, slurs and elongates his lines in thoroughly original fashion. It's exaggerated comic acting, to be sure, but it's also very, very funny if you're on the same wave length.
Ivan Reitman makes good use of his supporting cast, especially Warren Oates as the prototypically gruff Sergeant Hulka, John Candy as the wily, crazed "Ox," and John Larroquette as the flustered Captain Stillman, as well as a pre-Blade Runner Sean Young (an unlikely love interest for Ramis) and a pre-Fast Times at Ridgemont High Judge Reinhold (a stoner recruit). Typical of the time period, Reitman also makes sure to exceed the quota for gratuitous female nudity (Winger's briefly topless girlfriend, a spy shower scene, a lengthy mud wrestling match, and even more in the extended version available on DVD). The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is a throwback to classic military themes, but is probably an apt choice, given that Bernstein had also scored Meatballs and National Lampoon's Animal House, the trend-setter for slob comedies.
As director, Reitman wisely allowed Murray to dominate his scenes; the camera loves him, whether he's leading his platoon through wacky military maneuvers, reacting to a gut punch from his Sergeant, or romancing an MP (P. J. Soles) with kitchen utensils. The film has a good balance between static shots, in which we listen to wisecracks and watch people react, and scenes in which the camera gently moves along with the players. Veteran cinematographer Bill Butler favors a natural look, so the film doesn't grab you with its visuals, though one sunset scene (the silhouette of solders set against a dying red light) is absolutely gorgeous.
Based on the evidence of his short films, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, Jason Reitman favors more visual storytelling. In Juno, for example, there's a great traveling shot of identical suburban homes, as Juno travels to meet the potential adoptive couple for the first time; it effectively communicates what must be going through her mind: "Do I really want my child to grow up in conformity?" Later, we see Juno and her cheerleader friend talking in what appears to be a school hallway; the camera then pulls back to reveal they're sitting in a big trophy case.
In Stripes, Murray as Winger pushes and pulls against the system. His regrets about enlisting morph into something more complicated: amidst all the hijinks, he can see some value in the discipline and responsibility imposed upon him. His girlfriend had said as much to him: 'I'm tired of all your playing around. You need to grow up.' At the same time, he refuses to accept the system as it is. If he's forced to be in the Army, then he wants to mold it into something more to his liking. That's what finally motivates him to take on a leadership role with his platoon. He tells his fellow soldiers, in essence: 'We were stupid to sign up, but now that we're here, let's make something of it. And let's do it our way.' Ultimately he embraces that which he would, at one time, find abhorrent. It's the triumph of conservative values.
In contrast, Ellen Page as Juno is portrayed as responsible while harboring a rebellious, non-conformist streak. She experiments with sex one time, not as an expression of her own sexual desires, but because she was bored. She plays with the idea of getting an abortion, then waffles and decides to have the kid. Once she's made that decision, she does it her own way. She finds a couple to adopt the baby, keeps going to the same high school, keeps the same best friend, keeps up her grades, remains a good kid to her own parents, crushes on the adoptive father. With an allowance for modern variations, most notably the matter of fact pride in being pregnant, as opposed to shame, the film is remarkably conservative, embracing pregnancy, the benefits of wealth, and the belief in star-crossed high school romance.
I came, though, not to bury Juno -- a very fine, very funny film that stumbles only when it drapes itself in dramatic weight in its third act -- but to praise Stripes, a very fine, very funny film that never takes itself too seriously.
Ivan Reitman's career has zigged and zagged since Stripes. He worked with big stars in Legal Eagles, with Arnold Scharzenegger in Twins, Kindergarten Cop and Junior, made the endearing Dave, several disastrously unfunny failures (Fathers' Day, Six Days Seven Nights, My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and the disappointing Evolution. It's good to remember, though, that his follow-up to Stripes was Ghostbusters.
Jason Reitman has made a great start and appears determined to chart his own independent path, but the old man still has one up on him.