I 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.
There 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.
I 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.