Skip to main content

I’d take 20 more years just to have another three days with you.

Labor Day
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Hitherto, Jason Reitman has tapped a very deliberate furrow dramedy vein in his storytelling choices. He’s a quietly confident, if vaguely anonymous, director, and his greatest asset maybe a sure eye for casting. Buoyed by strong performers, he’s hewn repeated successes with potentially glib (Up in the Air) or emotionally difficult (Young Adult, not that anyone much went to see it) material. His good thespian ense doesn’t desert him with Labor Day, but in most other respects it’s a misfire. Without the insulation of humour, Reitman comes unstuck. He’s left high-and-dry, stranded by a clichéd script (he’s guilty as charged there, as the adaptor) that he over-extends in a self-important and ponderous fashion.


Reitman based his screenplay on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name. He was upfront about this being new territory for him, suggesting he might not get it right on this occasion. He didn’t, and he was evidently so over-conscious of what he was trying to achieve that he over-egged the pudding (or peach pie, if you will). This is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by the adult Henry Wheeler (Tobey Maguire, with Gattlin Griffith as his 13 year-old incarnation). He tells of the titular weekend in 1987 when escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) enters his and his mother Adele’s (Kate Winslet) lives. Frank, convicted of murder (flashbacks eventually reveal it was not an intentional act), quickly stirs passions in mum, a borderline shut-in who leaves the house once a month for supplies.  


Adele gets nervous tremors whenever she has to drive or even enter a supermarket, and has been this way since the departure of Henry’s father (Clark Gregg). As the over-written narrative informs us, “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself”. Quite ripe. Henry does his best to fill the gap (he even takes her on a date – to see D.A.R.Y.L.) but what she really needs is a big hunk of gruff-but-sensitive manly man. Something Gregg never was, but which Frank embodies in his rippling white t-shirt and skill with every possible real guy task there is. And, like Steven Segal in Under Siege, he also cooks. Reitman proceeds to overdo the sensual world of Adele’s “hunger for human touch”; each cord Frank binds to one of her limbs is an act of foreplay, while the cooking sequences aspire to the rhapsodic passions of Ghost’s flagrant potter’s wheel.


Frank’s also the perfect surrogate father for Henry, steering him towards baseball rather than less-than-macho dance classes. Why, Frank’s even an enormously intuitive and understanding carer for a neighbour’s son, the physically handicapped Barry (Micah Fowler). So it is that Adele and Frank, inspired with passion, plan to head off to Canada to live in bliss. Henry, feeling like the cuckoo in the nest, his head filled with doubts by new girl in the neighbourhood Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), initially believes they are going to leave without him. The confluence of events that leads to hopes dashed would play out better if Reitman didn’t dawdle so much; it’s a nice touch not to know exactly who it was who set the cops on Frank, but the conspiring of circumstances is so acutely emphasised it could be straight out of a Zucker Brothers movie.


Everyone in the town is incredibly nosey, and everyone suspects Henry or Adele of being up to no good for the slightest possible thing. Cashing a cheque, not going straight to school, walking along a pavement unaccompanied, buying a razor, and putting boxes in the back of a car. It quickly becomes ridiculous (Eleanor even puts two-and-two together regarding Henry’s mum’s suitor but quite how she does this is mystifying). Most bizarrely, the whole purpose of Frank’s intrusion on their lives is so he can lie low for a few days. So what does he do (despite diving behind walls every time there’s a knock at the door)? He mends a wall (does he have a concrete mixer handy?), changes oil and wheels on the car, plays baseball in the garden, and cleans out gutters. All activities of highly visibility to any slightly curious neighbour, or one with their binoculars out to sneak a peek at Our Kate (it’s not often you have an Oscar winner in the area). Or James van Der Beek’s policeman (James still has a very longitudinal head, for anyone interested).


Reitman was quite possibly attempting to instil the flavour another journeyman director, once one of the best, Rob Reiner, imposed on Stand by Me. That ’50 set tale was released in 1986, a year before the main events of Labour Day, complete with narration from a writer (Richard Dreyfus) looking back on a nostalgic but tumultuous experience from his youth. Where that film was soaked in bittersweet memories and an acute sense of period, everything about Labor Day is over-deliberate; from the lingering shots of record players and freeze dried coffee tins to the posters of E.T. Regular Reitman collaborator Eric Steelberg inflicts a hazy autumnal reverie on every frame, copious shafts of delicate sunlight and wistful longing. The tone reeks of an awards-bid, but ends up as too much of everything. The only way this might have been carried is if Reitman had underplayed at every turn, but instead he digs for every ounce of fallow emotion. The flashback sequences, gradually revealing events (in particular the crime Frank commits) are particularly suspect in this regard; textbook oblique references glimpsed throughout until the final dramatic unexpurgated reveal (there are also insights into the past of Adele but they are less abstruse). One gets the sense Reitman has been watching Terence Malick movies and thinking, “I’ll have some of that”, little realising his material is far too heavy-set and wholly ill suited to such an approach.


What saves Labor Day from being a complete misfire is the cast. Griffith, unlike many a child actor, is able to underplay without appearing wooden. Brolin doesn’t exactly have his work cut out for him, but he does his best to modulate a walking talking erotic fantasy. Winslet is outstanding, and you’d swear in the moment of a scene that Adele is a fully-fleshed out person rather than a slightly reductive depiction of a woman who just needs a good man to make her whole again. The relatively upbeat ending suggests another Stephen King (reunion after all these years; The Shawshank Redemption) but by that point the artifice has defeated any vestiges of genuine feeling.


On this evidence, the best advice to Reitman, who has already developed a career far eclipsing his father’s in terms of quality, is to take a step back, take stock and regroup. He instilled far greater depth and understanding through the caustically brittle humour of Young Adult than he does here. Men, Women & Children is probably more comfortable ground in this regard, despite a should-try-harder title (based on another novel, but that’s no excuse) and a role for Adam Sandler (fast becoming a box office kiss of death). It also features J.K. Simmons, who hopefully gets more than screen time than his too few minutes in Labor Day.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.