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

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Nobody trusts anybody now. We’re all very tired.

The Thing (1982)
(SPOILERS) The Thing has been thesis fodder for years, as much so as any given pre-1990 Cronenberg movie, and has popularly been seen as a metaphor for AIDS and even climate change. Now, of course, provided we’re still in a world where film is studied in the aftermath and we haven’t ball been assimilated in one form or another, such staples are sure to be scrubbed away by an inundation of bids to apply the Coronavirus to any given text (much in the way Trump has been popularly overwritten onto any particular invidious fictional figure you care to mention in the most tedious shorthand). And sure, there’s fertile ground here, with rampant paranoia and social distancing being practised among those in Outpost 31 (the “virus” can even be passed on by pets). That flexibility, however, is the key to the picture’s longevity and effectiveness; ultimately, it is not the nature of the threat (as undeniably and iconically gruey and Lovecraftian as it is), but rather the response of…

Oh man, they wronged you. Why they gotta be like that? You exude a cosmic darkness.

Mandy (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes you're left scratching your head over a movie, wondering what it was about it that had others rapturously raving while you were left shrugging. I at least saw the cult appeal of Panos Cosmatos’ previous picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which inexorably drew the viewer in with a clinically psychedelic allure before going unceremoniously off the boil with a botched slasher third act. Mandy, though, has been pronounced one of the best of the year, with a great unhinged Nic Cage performance front and centre – I can half agree with the latter point – but it's further evidence of a talented filmmaker slave to a disconcertingly unfulfilling obsession with retro-fashioning early '80s horror iconography.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…