Labor Day (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

LaborDay 75I like when directors push themselves and surprise us, so I’m glad Labor Day exists, and I look forward to seeing where he goes in the future.

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In 2009, while shooting Up in the Air, Jason Reitman came to Webster University to speak to some students, of which I was one. I remember someone asking if he planned to try to make any films in a different genre. He responded by saying that most of the filmmakers you really love don’t stretch out that much, but get really good at doing one specific thing. It might seem like he’s changed his mind, since his new film, Labor Day, bears little resemblance to his four previous films, at least on paper. Reitman has thus far been a master of character-driven comedies, which usually have a fairly dark and cynical satirical bent to them. Labor Day is many things, but it is certainly not a comedy, and oddly enough, it seems to be almost completely sincere.

Going in, I was actually expecting a straight thriller, along the lines of The Desperate Hours. That comes from the basic plot where Frank (Josh Brolin, looking like he just stepped off the set of No Country for Old Men, complete with a bloody abdomen) forces himself into the home of Adele and Henry Wheeler. Adele (Kate Winslet) is a depressed single mother, and Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is her teenage son, who is actually the lead, despite being absent from most of the posters (and on the one that does feature him, he’s just a blurry figure in the background). It quickly becomes clear that Frank is an escapee from a nearby prison, and he forces Adele and Henry to house and hide him from the police while he heals from his injury.

What I didn’t expect is that Frank ends up being a pretty alright guy. He helps out around the house, becomes a surrogate father figure to Henry, and eventually becomes romantically involved with Adele. I don’t feel bad saying this, because after seeing the film, I saw the trailer, which shows all of this, but for me, this unexpected turn was part of what kept me intrigued throughout the story. Those who go in expecting a romantic drama won’t have the same sense of discovery that I did, and which really elevated the experience for me.

That said, there are two major problems I have with Labor Day. First off, it was hard not to compare it to Jeff Nichols’ recent film Mud, which is far superior. Griffith is fine as the lead, but he lacks the authenticity and charm of the kids in Mud. Likewise, the small-town atmosphere which felt so genuine in Mud doesn’t quite work in Labor Day. The film was shot on location, but it feels much more Hollywood, partially because of the digital cinematography, which looks great, but detracts from the hot, grimy vibe the film is going for.

My second problem goes back to the initial question of this review, and how this film fits into the career of Jason Reitman. All of his films have a certain edge to them, which is lacking here. Think about the way the climaxes of Up in the Air and Young Adult defiantly subvert traditional Hollywood narratives. Those things made those movies feel special and memorable. Labor Day, for dealing with some potentially dark subject matter, ends up feeling the safest, and therefore, kind of disposable.

Labor Day is probably Reitman’s worst movie so far, but it’s still pretty good. He’s a great director who understands pace and visuals, and, most importantly, character. He’s great with actors, although it helps that he’s working with two of the best we have at the moment. I’m one of those guys who didn’t like the script of Juno, but I felt like the cast and Reitman’s direction elevated the lesser material. The same is true here. And fortunately, I disagree with Reitman’s theory from back in 2009. I like when directors push themselves and surprise us, so I’m glad Labor Day exists, and I look forward to seeing where he goes in the future. | Sean Lass

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