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MOVIES : High Atop Mount Goofiness : When it comes to taking an unlikely premise--say, a pregnant Schwarzenegger--and turning it into a blockbuster comedy, nobody's earned his stripes like Ivan Reitman.

November 20, 1994|Michael Walker | Michael Walker is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Surrounded by recumbent grips and gaffers, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are perusing a bookcase's worth of X-rated videos between takes on the set of "Junior." Modeled after a fertility clinic, the sprawling set, crammed onto a sound stage on the Universal lot, is rigged with an antechamber for sperm donors that the movie's cast and crew have dubbed the Masturbatorium and turned into an unofficial lounge.

"Let's see," DeVito says puckishly, scanning titles such as "Triple Header" and "Double the Pleasure." "Seen it, seen it, seen it. . . ." Schwarzenegger, dressed in a pink maternity smock that bulges over a prosthetic stomach, chuckles grimly and puffs on a stubby cigar.

In a moment the actors will venture down the hall to another set, where Schwarzenegger, his character "pregnant" with an embryo implanted in his abdomen by research partner DeVito, will explore the presumably fertile comic possibilities of a man going into labor. But for now, there is only the desultory kibitzing that makes a day on a movie set seem like a hitch in the peacetime Army.

Finally, the director is ready, and the entire surreal assemblage--towering pink-clad former bodybuilder, riotously diminutive co-star and slumping union brethren--disappears in a cloud of cigar smoke.

There is, arguably, only one director likely to gather such unlikely characters around an equally unlikely premise. And while this director hasn't earned an Oscar, his films have grossed more than $2 billion at the box office and permeated the pop-cultural consciousness to the point that, right here on the shelves of the Masturbatorium, there's a porn homage to his most successful movie, evocatively dubbed "Sexbusters."

"For some reason, I get attracted to difficult premises," Ivan Reitman says with a shrug, settling into his director's chair as Schwarzenegger, DeVito, co-star Emma Thompson and a gaggle of supporting actors take their places. "I mean, they're somewhat gimmicky: Ghosts exist and you can zap them; Arnold and Danny are twins; a man who looks like the President takes over and does a better job. But I try as hard as I can to find a level of reality in the fantastic premises that I latch onto."

Tellingly, Reitman rattles off this resume without mentioning any titles. He doesn't need to. You may not have seen "Ghostbusters" (1984) or "Twins" (1988) or "Dave" (1993), but their stories and characters have had an uncanny way of burrowing into the cultural topsoil, there to sprout catch phrases, ancillary toy lines, hit singles, talk-show debates.

Thanks to those films, as well as "Meatballs" (1979), "Stripes" (1981), "Kindergarten Cop" (1990) and hits such as "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) and "Beethoven" (1992), which he produced, the 48-year-old Reitman, a Czech refugee and Canadian expatriate, enjoys a level of discretion available to few directors.

Last March, he moved his Northern Lights production company into an imposing compound on the Universal lot within hailing distance of fellow zillionaire Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. Rather than fret over the availability of his favorite film editor and sometime associate producer, Sheldon Kahn, he simply put him on the Northern Lights payroll. And it was Reitman who helped pioneer the practice of having stars trade huge upfront salaries for a percentage of a film's box-office take.

"I think he's one of the few people capable of being a really excellent movie director one day and running a studio the next," says producer Sean Daniels, who as a young Universal Pictures executive worked with Reitman developing "Animal House." "He understands this bizarre combination of entertainment and business."

Reitman's financial acumen has, to his frustration, tended to obscure his filmmaker credentials.

"I am not confused at all about this one," producer Julia Phillips sniped about Reitman in her scorched-earth Hollywood memoir, "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again." "He is a businessman, not an artist."

"Comments like that really hurt a lot," Reitman admits. "I think I am a businessman, in terms of I'm not a fool with regard to how the business works. But setting all that aside, when I start on a film, from the moment I start working on a screenplay to the last point of editing, it's really an intensive creative endeavor. The films I've made are pretty complicated and have worked for a number of creative reasons, and I'm very proud of them. Since 'Twins' and 'Dave,' there's been a kind of grudging respect."

That tide may be turning, even if "Junior" has more in common with "Twins" than the more cerebral "Dave." "I think after 'Dave' people took him a lot more seriously," says one of Reitman's contemporaries. "That was a huge step forward, both creatively and as an artist."

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