Jason Reitman: Squirming in the dark with Dr Feel-bad

There's a price to pay for his happy childhood, and his characters foot the bill. Jonathan Romney meets Hollywood's master of discomfort

Lately we've become used to expecting nothing remarkable from mainstream American cinema. So it comes as a thrill when Hollywood produces something impressive. And when that something also dares to be uncomfortable, you start to hope that maybe there's some small renaissance going on. If that's over-optimistic, this spring's output suggests at least that intelligent, adult American movies are not the extinct species we feared.

Take Alexander Payne's comedy-drama The Descendants: George Clooney's protagonist discovers that his wife, in hospital in a coma, had been cheating on him. When Clooney sits down at her bedside, you expect tender declarations; instead, he showers her with invective. You cringe, and thrill at the film's chutzpah.

Or take Young Adult from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, creators of the teen-pregnancy hit Juno. It's the story of 37-year-old Mavis (Charlize Theron), who makes her living writing teen paperback romances. An attractive, outwardly confident woman, she's really a psychological mess, with a morbidly nostalgic attachment to her years of teen-princess glory, and a deluded dream of winning back her old high-school beau. Young Adult is an extremely dark character study with a protagonist who starts off unsympathetic, and becomes worse – not bad for a film which initially seems to be a Jennifer Aniston-style romcom. The effect – I remarked to director Reitman in London recently – is magnificently uncomfortable.

" 'Magnificently uncomfortable'!" whooped Reitman. "That's the poster quote!" 'Feel-bad' is the order of the day in Young Adult, he confirmed; he wanted to deny audiences the routine emotional rewards of Hollywood comedy. "You think you're watching a movie about a woman who's going to learn the value of not being a narcissist, and how to grow up, and all this stuff. When characters change on screen, it makes you feel better about yourself, you think, 'Oh I change too, I'm constantly becoming a better person.' And when she doesn't – and in such an emotionally violent way – hopefully it's so jarring that it stays with you."

Reitman has form when it comes to making audiences uneasy – and even uncertain about what his films are saying. Reitman's 2005 debut Thank You For Smoking was about a tobacco industry lobbyist, but didn't say whether he was a hero or a villain. And the urbanely troubling Clooney vehicle Up in the Air was at once a study of the effects of recession on the executive lifestyle, and a desolate portrait of loneliness. I've seen the film hailed as politically challenging, and attacked as reactionary. But ambivalence is a quality that Reitman prizes. He says the constant among his films – he's scripted two out of four – is "a lack of judgement on characters that are usually judged.

"I hate movies that tell people what to think. I'm proud that Democrats thought Thank You For Smoking was their film and Republicans thought it was theirs. I'm proud that pro-choice people thought Juno was their film and pro-life people thought it was theirs. Because that's all a reflection of who they are: the movie serves a purpose of highlighting the viewer."

While the messages are elusive, Reitman likes to be clear when it comes to the films' emotional effect. That, he says, is what a director's job consists of. "Can you design a Rorschach test that's going to make everyone feel something every time – and that looks like a Rorschach test? It's easy to show a picture of a kitten or a car accident. The question is, how abstract can you get and still get the audience to feel something when they don't know what's happening to them?"

Young Adult highlights a topic that often baffles non-Americans: the way that US school culture seems to pin people down to social roles that they then spend their lives trying to escape from (in the case of Young Adult's key characters, Prom Queen, Alpha Jock and Nerd Loser). Reitman insists that the film is not inspired by its maker's experiences. "My high-school years were so mediocre – I moved out when I was 16 and started living with my girlfriend who was 10 years older. Apart from that, I was just a video nerd."

Reitman, 34, still retains traces of the video nerd. He's affable, thoughtful in a fast-talking, agitated way, a touch whiny of voice. Born in Montreal, he's the son of Ivan Reitman, director of such entirely untroubling hits as Ghostbusters and Kindergarten Cop. Reitman Jr grew up watching "the same movies that every kid watched in the Eighties – Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and action films like Predator and Die Hard". The people who later inspired him to direct were the likes of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, the Coens and especially Alexander Payne: "He's on the road to being our generation's Billy Wilder."

Reitman is often asked whether he considered making lighter films like his dad. "My father wants the audience to walk out of the theatre happier and better people. It's never interested me," he laughs. The reason for their differing attitudes is simple, he says. His Czech-born father is the child of Holocaust survivors: "When he was four, my father and grandparents hid under the floorboards of a boat and snuck out of Communist Czechoslovakia where my grandfather was going to be arrested, and he arrives in Canada with nothing, doesn't speak English. Of course my father wants people to be happy!" In contrast, says Reitman, "I grew up in Beverly Hills."

So has it become a good time to make more challenging films in America? No, says Reitman, "it's close to impossible. There are only a few of us who are allowed to. Alexander [Payne] gets to because of Sideways, I get to because of Juno, Soderbergh gets to but he doesn't want to any more." But Reitman places a lot of faith in the rising independents who beat the economics with cheap digital cameras, people like Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and the Duplass brothers, whose forthcoming Jeff Who Lives At Home Reitman has produced.

Reitman's next directing project is a departure. Labor Day stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, and is "a fairly old-fashioned romantic drama with a lot of tension. No humour whatsoever," Reitman says. Let's hope that really is the poster quote.

'Young Adult' is out on 3 February

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence