His directorial prowess led to the endearing marriage of slapstick comedy and supernatural lunacy known as “Ghostbusters,” but once upon a time, Ivan Reitman was merely a scared little Jewish boy. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946, shortly after his parents, Leslie and Clara, barely managed to survive the Holocaust. Their life together in Central Europe fell apart when Clara was sent to Auschwitz and Leslie became a fugitive. Following the war, the Stalinization of Czechoslovakia left virtually no tolerance for the religiously observant Reitmans, and the family made a desperate escape to the decidedly more hospitable environment of Toronto. Arriving there in 1950, Leslie and Clara found decent work at a local Laundromat. Two decades later, Leslie opened a carwash. “We came here penniless. I didn’t speak the language,” Ivan Reitman recalled shortly before being inducted into the Canadian Walk of Fame earlier this year. “There’s something about being from a smaller place that makes you more polite.”
Now a long-standing member of the Hollywood elite, Reitman is not just being polite; he’s paying tribute to the community that shaped his upbringing. Along with his sisters, Avi Mandel and Susan Michaels, Reitman has contributed to the funding of Bell Lightbox. When construction is completed, around 2009, the theater will house the Toronto International Film Festival. The plot of land lies in the exact spot where his father’s carwash once stood.
Reitman’s contribution to Bell Lightbox draws attention to his dramatic childhood and opens up the possibility of studying his work through the prism of ethnic identity. Of course, none of his films deals with overt Jewish themes, and Reitman himself might refuse to look at his work as anything beyond examples of genre. But at least one of Reitman’s longtime colleagues insists on the merits of a deeper investigation: Filmmaker and performer Harold Ramis — whose roles in Reitman’s films, and directorial triumphs like “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day,” deserve a separate analysis — believes the Jew factor in their collaborations is hardly covert. “Jewish sensibilities now come unlabeled into the marketplace of ideas,” Ramis explained during a discussion over the phone from his Chicago-based office. “If I had to define three different schools of Jewish comedy, I’d say that Woody Allen represents Jewish angst, Mel Brooks represents Jewish droll irony and [our films] represent Jewish heroism.” For Ramis, the movies he made with Reitman don’t reflect unconscious Jewish sentiments as much as they signify revisions of old-school Jewish mentalities. “It struck me a long time ago that the characters we were writing weren’t schlemiels and losers,” he said. “These guys were brave and resourceful. Those aren’t Jewish qualities, but there’s a certain pride in Jews standing up for themselves.”
But nothing of the sort ever took literal form in Reitman’s films. He began his career directing exploitation movies, although his seedy 1973 horror film, “Cannibal Girls,” implied a sly voice behind the camera. The movie centers on a young hippie klutz, played by Eugene Levy, whose dreadful fate falls into the hands of carnivorous shiksas (although they aren’t identified that way). “For Ivan, the horror genre was not a natural fit,” director David Cronenberg recalled in a recent conversation with the Forward. Reitman produced Cronenberg’s early features “Shivers” and “Rabid” while the two men were involved with the Toronto Film Co-op. “When he went to Hollywood, it wasn’t a sell-out,” Cronenberg said. “That was Ivan’s real direction. For him to do ‘Ghostbusters’ was perfect.”
Reitman’s goal of making mainstream, profitable movies free of heavy-handed context recalls the predominant second-generation immigrant mindset, insofar as a desire to succeed and assimilate trumps an allegiance to tradition. Although Jewish characters dominate Reitman’s first success, the 1979 summer-camp comedy “Meatballs,” by the late 1980s the cultural elements of his films had diluted into sheer formulaic narratives. Predictably enough, during a brief interview while Reitman was visiting New York, the director avoided imposing anything other than a literal reading of his career. “I love to tell good stories and make people laugh,” he said. “I seem to do it okay.”
Despite such reductionism, the current state of the film industry suggests a tradition stretching back to Reitman’s work. The box office conquests of movies produced by Judd Apatow and starring actors like Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (such as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up”) recall the initial perception of Reitman and his gang. “There are three generations,” Ramis, a castmember in Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” said. “That makes me the grandfather and Judd the dad. Cera, Rogen and Hill are the current generation. Ivan is a part of the grandfather generation.” Unlike the Apatow clique, the older filmmakers rarely addressed their traditionalist roots — although Ramis pointed out an autobiographical plot twist in a Reitman classic: “The last act of ‘Stripes,’ when we invade Czechoslovakia, is really some fantasy of Ivan’s to go back there and kick some ass.”
In light of Reitman’s background, the familial grouping leading down to Apatow should include at least one additional member of the third generation: Reitman’s son, Jason, whose debut as a screenwriter and director, the 2005 feature “Thank You for Smoking,” was met with great acclaim. His sophomore film, the delightful comedy “Juno” (opening next month), co-stars none other than Cera. Celebrating at a party shortly after the movie premiered to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jason Reitman contemplated his next project. “I’d love to do a movie on religion,” he said, while his father beamed in a nearby crowd, “but I haven’t thought of the right idea yet.”
Eric Kohn is a film critic for the New York Press and a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.