Jason Reitman’s ‘Labor Day’ is 2013’s Most Fascinating Film Failure

Jason Reitman has had a pretty easy go of it so far. The progeny of Hollywood royalty, his four films to date — Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult — were met with mostly good reviews and decent box office, as well as two Academy Award nominations for Best Director. Sure, there’s been a backlash (there always is), but it was mostly a quiet one. Until now. Reitman’s latest, an adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel Labor Day, premiered to decidedly mixed reviews (and worse buzz) at Telluride late last summer. Paramount had initially pegged it for a December, Oscar-friendly limited release — as they’d done with Up in the Air and Young Adult — but as that date approached, they quietly shuffled it off to January (leaving only a week-long Oscar-qualifying run in L.A. for December). In other words, Labor Day is likely to get ignored in the crush of December and presumed stinky in the graveyard of January. Both sentences are a shame, since it’s a risky and genuinely unusual piece of work.

This is not to say it’s a great film — it’s not. Labor Day takes itself with the kind of seriousness that results in quiet snickering and quieter eye rolling; I heard plenty of titters in my screening, though us critics are a mighty jaded bunch. The premise, first of all, is like something out of a dime-store romance paperback: an agoraphobic, depressed divorcee (Kate Winslet) and her teenage son (Gattlin Griffith) are kidnapped by an escaped felon (Josh Brolin), but over the course of the long Labor Day weekend they spend together, they discover that hey, he’s actually a Good Guy who can make a mean pot of chili, change the oil in the station wagon, show the kid how to throw a baseball, and get mom’s ample bosom a-heaving again.

You get how this can come off a little silly, and it frequently does. Reitman’s previous films have all been, to some degree, comedies — even his most serious picture, Up in the Air, had a light touch and sophisticated wit. Too often, Labor Day feels like a sternly resolved, self-consciously determined break from that tradition, a filmmaker deciding “I am making a Serious Drama” and steadfastly refusing to allow even a note of levity into the proceedings.

That’s a shame, because Reitman’s skill with comedy, his ability (particularly in Young Adult) to land a laugh and then make it stick in your throat, is one of his real virtues as a filmmaker — that and his deft handling of ensemble casts, another element all but abandoned here (the role Reitman hands previous collaborator J.K. Simmons is such a throwaway that it barely seems worth the trouble; any day player could’ve handled it). And he makes some outright peculiar choices; there is ultimately a point to the food-porn scene of the trio making a peach pie in what feels like real time, but Reitman puts a mighty long tail on that kite.

Yet in spite of its many problems, Labor Day doesn’t deserve to be dismissed. Its sense of time and place (1987, New Hampshire) is right on the money, and Eric Steelberg’s autumnal photography is ridiculously handsome, his light bouncing appropriately off every half-heartedly oscillating fan. Brolin has the easy, unforced menace thing down cold; watch the way he lays his hands on the kid, puts his arm around him, saying nothing and everything at once. Winslet puts across her crippling sense of closed-off fright early on, and bangs that drum loud enough that it resonates for the rest of the picture.

Most importantly, Reitman is trying new things as a filmmaker. He tells most of Brolin’s backstory purely in images, avoiding dodgy expositional dialogue and letting those quick, barely registering visuals slowly accumulate through the parallel narrative. His intercutting of individually innocuous sequences for maximum tension is deft and effective. And there are some genuinely moving moments in its closing passages (watch the way the teenager tells his dad, simply, “It’s okay”).

Labor Day is not an entirely successful picture. But it’s not a timid one either. It lacks the smooth confidence of Reitman’s earlier films; it doesn’t seem to come as easily to him as they did. But if he can manage to fuse the zip of those pictures with the weight of this one, his next film should really be something.

Labor Day’s very limited release begins Friday.