Jason Reitman’s Anonymous Narcissists
Thank You For Smoking
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman, based on the book Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley
imdb, USA, 2005.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Cody Diablo
imdb, USA, 2007.
Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the book Up in the Air by Walter Kim
imdb, USA, 2009, Kenneth Broadway’s SoundOnSight Review, Simon Howell’s SoundOnSight Review
Directed by Harold Ramis
Written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, based on a story by Danny Rubin
He falls in love with his reflection in the glass
He can’t resist who’s staring back
Narcissus and Echo are a doomed couple from Greek mythology. One version of the story is that Echo, a wood nymph, fell in love with the beautiful hunter Narcissus. Echo was unable to speak for herself, but able to repeat back what others say. Narcissus fell in love, not with Echo, but with the sound of his own voice. The spurned Echo retreated to the mountains, where she can be heard to this day, repeating what others say back to them. Narcissus, thirsty from chasing his own voice, sipped water from a clear pond and fell in love with his own reflection. He remained by the pond, trapped by his own reflection, until he died from hunger and was reborn as the narcissus flower, better known today as the daffodil.
Jason Reitman specializes in films that are character studies of anonymous narcissists. Or to put it another way, as a director, he studies a very specific kind of character: type A personalities with healthy egos who succeed in jobs that demand anonymity, but whose narcissism will never allow them to be happy with their success. They are characters who mistake jobs for careers; who confuse what they do with who they are.
With the exception of Juno, all of Reitman’s films can be described as funny tragedies. His characters suffer for their hubris, and like all Greek tragic heroes their suffering drives them insane, at least if you define insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
In Thank You For Smoking, Aaron Eckhart is Nick Naylor, the spin doctor for Big Tobacco. While the most public of Reitman’s protagonists, Nick’s success depends on the anonymity of his methods, on not allowing the public to see how the sausages are made. Despite this need for anonymity, Nick allows himself to be seduced by journalist Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes in probably her best career performance.) Nick believes that he is in love with Heather, but what he has really fallen in love with is his female reflection: like Nick, Heather is smart, beautiful, manipulative and consumed with furthering her career even at the expense of others. Nick even says at one point that looking at Heather is “really great, it’s like looking in the mirror…”
Heather’s exposé of Nick causes him to lose his job and endangers both his relationship with his son Joey and his friendship with his fellow “Merchants Of Death” – the spin doctors for the alcohol lobby and the gun lobby.
All of Reitman’s tragic protagonists are struggling addicts, but only Nick Naylor is truly forced to come to grips with his addiction, when he is kidnapped by anti-smoking terrorists and poisoned with an overdose of nicotine patches. Ironically, Nick’s excessive smoking saves his life. While we never see Naylor – or anyone else for that matter – smoke onscreen in Thank You For Smoking, we are told that Nick’s nicotine tolerance from smoking has saved his life, but that he is now hypersensitive to nicotine and continued smoking will kill him.
Thank You For Smoking‘s ending seems hopeful, because Nick finds a way to reverse his fortunes, get his revenge on Heather and he is even offered his old job back. While Nick changes his pattern enough to refuse the job offer from Big Tobacco, he ends the film determined to continue to defend the indefensible, convinced to do so by his son Joey (Cameron Bright), who repeats back to his Dad arguments that Nick had made to him earlier in the film. This self-fulfilling feedback loop is also typical of Reitman’s films – the protagonists surround themselves with those who will support their delusions – mirror carriers, the Echos to their Narcissus.
If Nick Naylor needs to keep his methods anonymous to ensure success, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the protagonist of Up in the Air, makes anonymity his method of success. Ryan Bingham works for a company that helps other companies outsource their firings. This is not to imply that they do not provide a service, they do. Because Ryan fires people every day, he is very good at it. His anonymity is his key asset: the people being fired don’t get hung up in their personal relationship with the person firing them, because they don’t have one.
Ryan Bingham isn’t just anonymous in his professional life, he is personally anonymous. While he keeps an apartment, it is essentially a storage locker. On the road for more than 300 days a year, he doesn’t have friends so much as travel acquaintances – airline and airport employees who are paid to be nice to him. He even gives seminars in simplifying your life down to what can be carried in a backpack. Ryan is so anonymous that his own family doesn’t understand him. When his sister Julie’s fiancé Jim gets cold feet before the marriage, Ryan’s older sister Kara orders Ryan to talk to Jim despite the fact that getting involved is contrary to Ryan’s non-interference philosophy. (It is also possible that Kara knows this but doesn’t care.)
Like Nick Naylor, Ryan falls in love with his female counterpart – Alexandra Goran (Vera Farmiga) a woman who pursues Ryan specifically because of his philosophy of not getting attached to other people – of avoiding baggage. Unlike Heather’s betrayal of Nick which is both personal and professional, Alex only betrays Ryan personally, but that betrayal is somehow more devastating. (Alex calls her relationship with Ryan “a break from our normal lives… a parenthesis” to his face.)
Professionally, Ryan mentors Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) despite the fact that Natalie is trying to eliminate travel from their firing missions, doing all of the work remotely, making it even more anonymous. The irony isn’t just that Ryan is struggling against becoming even more anonymous then he already is, it is also that Ryan spends every day counselling fired employees not to be attached to their jobs, not to confuse what they did with who they are, advice that he also desperately needs.
If Nick Naylor’s addiction is tobacco and the protagonist of Young Adult Mavis Gary’s addiction is alcohol, than Ryan’s addiction is travel, or as he puts it, “All the things you probably hate about travelling -the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home.” When he is awarded for accumulating ten million miles with American Airlines, Ryan’s name is added to an airplane, a bit like a drunk’s name being added to his favourite bar stool.
Up in the Air ends with Ryan having realized the futility of his anonymous life, even as he wins a Pyrrhic victory over Natalie’s plan to remotely fire people and he is sent back on the road. Ryan is perhaps Reitman’s saddest hero, because he becomes self-aware enough to understand that he is trapped, even if he can’t see a way out.
If Ryan Bingham is Reitman’s most self-aware hero than Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is his most self-deluded. The plot of Young Adult revolves around Mavis’ delusional quest to return to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota and win back her high-school sweetheart Buddy Slade from his wife Beth and their new baby.
Key to this quest is Mavis insistence that she is the “author” of the Waverly Prep series of young adult novels that she writes (and whose final volume she is avoiding finishing). It is only when she goes to a bookstore to buy one of her books to sign and give to Buddy’s niece, that it is revealed that Mavis is not the creator of the series, but the writer. Her name is not on the outside front cover, but on the inside front cover – the difference for Mavis between recognition and anonymity; between genuine creation and adaptation. This is reinforced by the moments in the film when Mavis eavesdrops on teenagers so that she can steal their dialogue for her writing and even for her attempted seduction of Buddy.
While the distinction between creating and writing may seem like a subtle one, it is of critical importance to Mavis. The quest to win back Buddy is sparked by the birth announcement from Beth Slade and by Mavis’ miscarriage of Buddy’s baby when they were both in high school. Mavis hates Beth because she is capable of genuine creation, while Mavis is barren.
One critical distinction between Mavis and Reitman’s other protagonists is that Mavis chooses to seek out someone who tells her the truth, while Ryan and Nick are only told the truth by people they can’t avoid – generally their family. (Nick chooses to hang around his son mainly to train Joey to parrot him rather than Joey’s mother Jill – Nick’s ex-wife.) Mavis’ truth teller is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who had the locker next to her in high school, but was completely invisible to her, only remembered as the victim of a hate crime that wasn’t really a hate crime, because Matt wasn’t gay, just fat. (The film implies that Mavis may have accidentally caused the hate crime, because she referred to Matt as a “theater fag.”)
In Young Adult‘s saddest scene, Matt tells Mavis that even though she believes that she was at her best in high school, that she is really at her best now, because she has befriended and noticed Matt now, while back in high school, she never noticed Matt when he was at his best. The tragedy of this scene is that Mavis seeks out Matt not for his own qualities, but because she sees in him her reflection.
Like Mavis, Matt is mired both in the past and a desperate self-pity. Like her, he loathes her cousin Wheelchair Mike, “the happiest cripple in Mercury”. Like her, Matt is a highly functioning drunk, distilling his own booze in his garage. Matt’s other hobby is dismantling action figures and putting them together into new combinations, not unlike the way that Mavis rearranges the characters from the Waverly Prep story bible into new combinations. Critically, Matt’s reproductive organs like Mavis’ are crippled – they work, but not for their intended reproductive purpose. (It is unclear whether Mavis and Matt are really infertile or Mavis, scarred by her miscarriage, only perceives them to be barren.)
Nick and Ryan mistake mirrors for lovers and are betrayed by their error; Mavis mistakes a lover for a mirror and betrays herself.
Young Adult ends with Mavis as self-deluded as she began, her decision not to change made thanks to Matt’s sister Sandra, who acts as Mavis’s Echo, convincing Mavis that there is nothing wrong with her life.
Ellen Page’s Juno is the happiest of Reitman’s heroes, partly because she is the youngest, but also because she is able to reject the lure of narcissism that traps Mavis, Ryan and Nick. This is also what makes Juno a comedy rather than a funny tragedy.
Like Mavis, Ryan and Nick, Juno MacGuff is a driven, type A personality with a facility for language. She takes a personal failure – her unplanned teenage pregnancy – and turns it into a project that she is determined to succeed at. She is also determined that the job be anonymous, refusing to see the baby after it is born and insisting on a closed adoption, “Can’t we just, like, kick this old school? Like, I have the baby, put it in a basket and send it your way, like, Moses and the reeds?”
While Juno never really comes close to mistaking her job (pregnancy) with a career, she does engage in a dangerous flirtation with Mark Loring (Jason Bateman) the intended adoptive father of her baby. She is attracted to him because he plays the guitar and is cool in a way that Mark’s wife, career woman Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner), is not. It is only when Mark tries to act on Juno’s flirtation that she realizes the disastrous mistake that she is making.
In a sense, Mark is the narcissist of the story, falling in love with a younger, female reflection of himself and throwing away his marriage in its pursuit. By contrast, Vanessa is the happy result of a decision to balance a personal life with a career. Juno ends with Vanessa in a chair rocking her baby, with Juno’s note to Vanessa, “If you’re still in, I’m still in.” framed and hanging on the wall, representing Vanessa and Juno’s rejection of narcissism and Vanessa’s rejection of Juno’s anonymity.
The most interesting cinematic ancestor to Reitman’s anonymous narcissists is Phil, the narcissistic weatherman from Groundhog Day. The film was written and directed by a frequent collaborator with Jason’s Dad Ivan, Harold Ramis, a sort of cinematic uncle to Jason Reitman.
Like Mavis, Nick and Ryan, Phil is a type A personality with a gift for using language. As a TV weatherman, he is scarcely anonymous, but he loathes Groundhog Day because it is the one day of the year when he is forced to share the spotlight, “A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat.” Like Reitman’s protagonists, Phil is trapped in repetitive self-destructive behaviour, but he is given a chance to escape when the universe reveals to Phil his trap, by forcing him to relive Groundhog Day over and over again, until he finds a way off his narcissistic merry-go-round.
In Jason Reitman’s more unforgiving cinematic universe, only Vanessa Loring finds a way to balance her work and life and get off the merry-go-round, while Juno successfully avoids climbing on in the first place. The rest of his anonymous narcissists are stuck on the ride, going around in circles, trapped by their own reflection.