This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
It is perhaps a bit odd to celebrate the early work of Jason Reitman on the opening weekend of his first critical failure. Labor Day is not only the Canadian director’s first “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s also his first feature to even drop below 80%. Frankly, given the way the film has been kicked about the calendar since its Toronto International Film Festival debut, it seems as if the various people involved would prefer that we not talk about it at all.
And so we won’t! (I haven’t seen it yet, anyway.) Instead let’s take a look back at Reitman’s early shorts and program a half-hour film festival brimming with nostalgia for the early 2000s. He directed six of these before his first feature, 2005’s Thank You for Smoking. Half of that number are available to watch on Vimeo, thanks to character actor and Reitman regular Jeff Witzke. They’re all fast-paced experiments in screenwriting and editing, clever and really quite delightful.
In God We Trust
Chronologically, the first is In God We Trust, which won a whole slew of awards on the festival circuit back in 2000. It begins simply enough. A shaggy-haired young urbanite gets hit by a truck and is sent off to Purgatory, where a persnickety bureaucrat (Witzke) informs him that he’s racked up too many bad deed points and will be off to Hell shortly. Our hero then makes a run for it, finds his way back into his body and spends the rest of the film trying to avoid the supernatural pen-pushers on his heels. We watch as Witzke and a Purgatory foreman played by Parks and Recreation‘s own Jim O’Heir use their death-computer to bring him back, with everything from gang violence to killer bees.
It certainly feels like a rough student film, but you can see the influences of the best directors of the 1990s. It’s got that warm, almost jocular style of quick editing and weird focus that identifies the Wong Kar-wai of that decade, and tries to approach the looseness of Richard Linklater as much as the speed of Run Lola Run. The best part is Reitman’s sense of humor, a smiling sort of wry optimism that manages to incorporate both Final Destination-like violence and the inevitability of a happy ending. His later features would take this quality in different directions, whether sad (Up in the Air) or bitter (Young Adult), but it’s always identifiably Reitman.
Next up is an even brisker comedy, 2001’s Gulp. Much simpler than In God We Trust, it’s the story of a slightly oblivious young man with a tropical fish in urgent need of salt water. He’s got about five minutes to drive around like a lunatic, desperately trying to find some sea salt or some sea water. His actual plan isn’t really clear, but that doesn’t matter. This is Reitman at his zippiest, concerned primarily with the panicked chase and the instantly comic characters he meets on the way, from a stubborn veterinarian to a “Pet Shop Dictator,” played again by Witzke. Using the same hurried, playful cinematic style as In God We Trust and its ’90s influences, it is very much of is time.
Finally, the last short film Reitman made before Thank You for Smoking is a bit different. While the above two films are all about frenzied movement, Consent takes place entirely in one location: a college dorm room, and specifically in bed. Judah and Penny are a young couple at the end of a really wonderful blind date, about to take things a bit further. However, just to be safe, they’ve brought along their lawyers to hammer out a consent contract with individual provisions for all potential acts and positions.
Jenny’s lawyer is, of course, played by Witzke, who emerges as the MVP of Reitman’s early work. He and the rest of the cast get the tone just right, a satire of formality just loose enough to make sure the jokes land. It may not actually involve any running around, like the previous two, but the rapid-fire faux-legal dialogue stands in for the frantic chases of In God We Trust and Gulp. Between the three of them you can see Reitman gradually developing a point of style, finding a warm but also somehow sardonic tone that would survive and define his work, even as he moved away from the formal frenzy of In God We Trust and Gulp. In hindsight, it’s no wonder that he and Diablo Cody found such a fruitful collaboration.
As he moves on from Labor Day, which sounds to have been quite the dramatic departure from his style anyway, perhaps he’ll return to the quick-witted comedy that has come to define the earlier moments of his career.