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Ivan Reitman, 1946-2022

The best director of studio comedies in the 1980s, give or take a year on either side.
February 14, 2022
Ivan Reitman, 1946-2022
Ivan Reitman (second from right) with Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray. (Copyright Universal Studios.)

Ivan Reitman, who died over the weekend at age 75, was arguably the greatest director of star-driven high-concept studio comedies from the period in which star-driven high-concept studio films were the hottest things going. Reitman’s work with Bill Murray and Arnold Schwarzenegger helped define how audiences saw both men, earning buckets of money and tons of laughs in the process.

Reitman teamed with Murray on Meatballs (Murray’s first film), Stripes, and Ghostbusters, cementing the idea of Murray as a sort of slacker savant, a shifty near-hood always looking for an angle. When Dean Yeager (Jordan Charney) is dismissing the trio of scientists who would go on to become the Ghostbusters, he says of Peter Venkman (Murray) “You … seem to regard science as some kind of dodge, or hustle.” This is very much the Tao of Murray in Reitman’s films: from camp counselor to the worst Army recruits of all time to the Ghostbusters themselves, Reitman knew just how to capture Murray’s smirk.

It’s entirely possible Murray would’ve been a huge star without Reitman—Murray still had Harold Ramis, after all—but the work he did in Caddyshack was very different from the sort of work he was doing with Reitman. Goofier, more affected. Reitman got Murray to tap into something a little more realistic, a little more natural. I mean, the whole reason that Ghostbusters works is because it’s not really a sci-fi film; it’s just an office comedy married to a relationship comedy with a dash of meddling by bureaucratic and academic stuffed shirts. Typical snobs vs. slobs stuff, even if the slobs in this case happen to have doctorates.

In the back half of the 1980s and the early 1990s, Reitman set to work with another star—this one better established—and completely reworked his image. Again, it’s not impossible to imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn to comedy without the work of Ivan Reitman; in Walter Hill’s Red Heat (1988), the Austria-born strongman does some fine comic work across from Jim Belushi in a film that’s like 48 Hours by way of Minsk. And Ahnuld was always good with a one-liner (“Stick around.” “Let off some steam.”), so maybe it was just a matter of time.

But there was something great and goofy about Schwarzenegger’s work with Reitman that highlighted the surreal nature of the Terminator’s turn to comedy. Again, the high-concept nature of it all helped: In Twins he starred as Danny DeVito’s long-lost twin brother, as unlikely a genetic pairing as one could imagine; in Kindergarten Cop, he played a shotgun-wielding, cigar-chomping undercover officer forced to endure a legion of six-year-olds while searching for a drug dealer on the lam; and in Junior, he played a scientist who impregnates himself for laughs.

Ivan Reitman (center) with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Copyright Columbia Pictures.)

The absurdity of each of these situations helped ease viewers into the idea that Schwarzenegger could be a straightforward comic figure, and Reitman was there every step of the way. His nose for good material through this period was unfailing; all of the flicks mentioned here were not only massive hits, most of them also became part of the cultural firmament. Critics’ verdicts were more mixed, but critical acclaim and comedic success are frequently difficult to disentangle.

Reitman would never quite match that decade-and-a-half run in terms of commercial success, even if his films always maintained a baseline level of quality. I have a particular soft spot for My Super Ex-Girlfriend, in large part because Luke Wilson has always felt like an underappreciated comic presence and Uma Thurman’s abusive superhero, in hindsight, feels a bit like a takedown of the genre now dominating the big screen.

But then, maybe it wasn’t Wilson. Maybe it was Reitman all along. On a personal level, he’s the director whose films largely defined what I found funny: I wore out a VHS of Ghostbusters taped off of HBO as a kid; Ghostbusters II was one of the first movies I can remember seeing in a theater; Kindergarten Cop was another formative cinematic experience and my first memory of Schwarzenegger (I am just young enough that I had to rediscover his action films a bit later on). That Reitman was a producer on so many pictures I would come to enjoy later in life (Road Trip, Eurotrip, Old School, etc.) is no real surprise either.

Ivan Reitman was one of the greats. He will be missed.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association