Jason Reitman’s Labor Day: A look at the directorial misstep

Labor Day - Jason ReitmanI began teaching film around the same time that Steven Spielberg released Hook (1991). When students asked me why the movie had failed, I told them that it was because it took way too long to get to Neverland. In screenwriting terms, the first act was far too long. Then they would ask how someone like Steven Spielberg could make such an obvious mistake. That’s a much more involved question, and it grows out of the fact that film, like any art, has mysterious secrets, and resists all our attempts to calculate and quantify.

Jason Reitman began his feature film career with the satire Thank You for Smoking (2005), the quirky romance Juno (2007), and the somber Up in the Air (2009). I thought they showed tremendous promise. Then came the painful Young Adult (2011). And now, he has given us Labor Day (2013), which seems to me to be a thumpingly bad movie on virtually all accounts.

The film, based on a Joyce Maynard novel, is about Adele, severely depressed after multiple miscarriages and a divorce, and her young teenage son Henry, a good kid who tries to salvage her. One day, they meet a mysterious man, Frank, who turns out to be an escaped murderer. He forces his way into their lives and Adele falls in love with him. I’ll leave the Stockholm Syndrome analysis to others. Every reviewer I read noted it. There’s just so much more to complain about.

There’s the Frank problem. I can believe that escaped convict Frank looks as good as Josh Brolin. I can believe that he is a kind and gentle man. I can believe he is good with kids. I can believe he is good with kids confined to wheelchairs. I can believe he is an expert handyman, that he does housework, that he is a professional quality baker. I can even believe that he may or may not play the cello as if it were a guitar. What I cannot believe is that every single one of those things is embodied in one man. I suppose in the Harlequinised world of modern romantic drama, prisons are the new place to look for Mr. Right. So we have the over-idealised man problem. But there is so much more.

Thank you for smoking - Jason ReitmanThere is the illogical characterisation problem. Frank is on the run, recovering from a surgical incision and an injured leg. Everyone is looking for him. So what does he do while holed up in a quiet suburban home? Why, he goes outside to do some home repair, enjoy the evening breeze with his lady, and, as if that weren’t enough, play baseball! Tossing a baseball is the very thing nine out of ten doctors prescribe when recovering from an abdominal incision.

Henry’s motivation with regard to Frank – he seems to do everything he can to help Frank for most of the movie, then may or may not set him up at the end – is simply too murky to read.

Or how about this? (Spoiler alert) At the climax, as the cops close in, Frank ties up Adele and Henry so that they can pretend to be kidnap victims, and not Frank’s accomplices. But in the long scene immediately preceding this, Adele and Henry were by themselves, in town, interacting with many people in a bank as they withdrew the cash they needed for their escape. Frank was back home, out of the picture. Everyone saw the mother and son walking freely through the town. How could they conceivably claim to be kidnap victims? Your guess is as good as mine, because the movie never addresses the gaping logic hole.

As for Reitman’s screenplay, he has Adele reveal her back story – the reason for her debilitating sadness – at the end of Act II. Then, a few minutes later, he has Frank reveal his back story – the reason he is in jail. This is classic bad writing. Typically, as we reach the end of Act II, we are so wrapped up in the present-tense story that we do not want to be pulled out if for subplot or flashback. A very short explosive revelation can fit, but nothing more. Reitman gives us back-to-back extended journeys away from the immediate drama. The only thing that saves this device is the fact that the immediate drama is not very good, so maybe we don’t mind the interruption.

Young Adult - Jason ReitmanI could go on – when Frank and Adele are in the movie, which is most of the run time – things move at an elegiac pace. Everything is portentous, including the music and the editing and the incoherent quick flashbacks. Yet the few times Henry escapes his house and plays scenes with other young people, the movie turns into a wise-cracking, funny teen film (actually, the movie would have been much better if that’s what it was, without Frank at all). Or how about Adele, proclaiming early on that she will let no harm come to her child, and then, when the chips are down, being too weak to turn the ignition on her car or come up with a plausible explanation for why she wants to withdraw her own money at the bank. Both times, Henry has to rescue her.

That last point is crucial. Is Adele a complex, nuanced character in turmoil, or simply an entirely inconsistent contrivance designed to jerk tears from a sympathetic audience? I suppose you could have either interpretation. You can probably guess that I favour the latter. But Kate Winslet received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and the movie has a 6.8 on IMDB. Not everyone hated it.

So what to make of Jason Reitman? Three intriguing movies followed by two duds. The book is still open. Hitchcock made bad movies. Ford, Kurosawa, and von Trier made bad movies. Even Renoir (please don’t ask what I think is a bad Renoir movie, because I have learned that I get slapped when I disclose it). The only significant director I can think of who never made a movie I didn’t like is Yasujiro Ozu, but considering that I still haven’t seen more than thirty of his features, there’s hope yet that I’ll find a dud. So Reitman took a shot at an overwrought romance and it failed big time. I’m still hoping his next one will be good.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

15 thoughts on “Jason Reitman’s Labor Day: A look at the directorial misstep

  1. Thank you for your review. It was at very least refreshing to read someone who genuinely did not like Labor Day and tried to back it up with what he thought was important. I also thank you for your statement about film being art and having “mysterious secrets” that seem to dodge calculation and quantification. Maybe in future reviews it would be better for you to resist all calculation and quantification because film (especially this one) has a living breathing quality that belies your kind of analysis. I have read no one that talks about the play on words of “Labor Day.” This movie was a parable about love as a healer (Winslet’s character had a brutal miscarriage, Brolin’s accidentally killed his wife). It was not meant to be observed using a microscope (that I imagine you do with your students). Furthermore, I think it is a travesty that so many people and critics alike have turned their noses up to this wonderful, heartfelt little film that is so much more than the sum of its parts. All your knit-picking is valid but you’re missing the boat on the film’s real mission. Do yourself a favor. Have some wine, and watch the film again. I teach mathematics and sometimes to solve a really difficult problem, I have to walk away from it for a while and then come back. And then…Eureka!

    • I think I would have liked to take a Math class from you, Randall. I’m guessing you don’t make your students show their work. I won’t attempt to defend film critics. I share a lot of your distaste for what passes for film criticism today. Labor Day obviously touched you in a way it did not touch me and that’s not only fine, it’s crucial. Speaking only for myself, I do not analyze as I watch a movie. I try my best to simply react. Later, I try to analyze (or, as you might have it, nit-pick) to understand why I had that reaction. For instance, I am not inclined to give the movie director any credit for maintaining the title created by the author of the novel. I found Labor Day highly unsatisfying as a drama and as a romance, and I don’t suspect any amount of wine will change that — though I am willing to try. Thanks for joining the debate.

  2. Though it was a misstep for Reitman, it’s still a very interesting one that makes me feel like he’s more confident in knowing what it is that he wants to do, and how he wants to approach any type of material. Let’s just hope he doesn’t pull another stunt like this, though. Good review.

  3. Oh darn. I’m sorry to hear that this film isn’t much good. I adore Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, so I was excited about this film. But I have very little doubt, based on your review, that I would hate Labor Day. Maybe part of the problem is Winslet—she keeps taking these overly dramatic roles! It sounds like a reprise of her insufferable character in Revolutionary Road.

  4. Re: your comment about the Kate Winslet character, i wish you had mentioned because you are a man and have never had children (literally) possibly there is something unique and profound about this character that you just will not and cannot understand. Jason at least attempted to. i think jason created a mezmerizing and beautifully unique film. I was truly blown away.

    • I don’t imagine we’ll ever agree on Adele as a character, but your comment leads me to consider that mainstream films have rarely dealt with miscarriage with much complexity. The Help is the only recent movie I can think of that had a character suffer miscarriages. (There was a very good short at the Toronto Film Festival a few years back as well, but it’s not exactly mainstream). Parents suffering the loss of a child (Rabbit Hole, Ordinary People) are more common.

    • Oh no. And Renoir hater. I can’t agree with you about Rules…, but I will gladly stipulate that Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid blows Renoir’s away. And I’ll fight side by side with you against anyone who claims otherwise.

      • I’m no Renoir hater. I quite like most of his pictures. Rules, though, is so inferior to L’Age d’or that I find it hard to tolerate. And the fact that he has never acknowledged his debt to it irks me. Almostas much as the rip off of Grand Illusion by Jarmish’s Down by Law. I thought Renoir’s version of Zola’s the Human Beast was much better than Lang’s. but my favorite of all Renoirs will always be La Marseillaise. As for Reitman, I wonder why you bother with him at all. Your marshmallow film was probably better than Up in the Air.

  5. Smart article, Jonathan. It’s so true about the fact that even great directors have filmed terrible movies. (Hitch’s Under Capricorn and Kurosawa’s Redbeard have always been on my sad-but-yucky list.) Rationalizing this is difficult for me, but it suggests that everyone’s human–even those with great talent.

    • Thanks. And for the record, I find Bergman’s Thirst almost unwatchable. But it still is way better than my last movie, made in film school, entitled 6 Million Marshmellows.

  6. Thanks for an interesting article on a different slant Jonathan. I have only seen ‘Thank You For Smoking’ out of those you mention, so I cannot add anything relevant. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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