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Labor Day: Trapped In Utero

by Ethan Alter January 31, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Labor Day</i>: Trapped In Utero

I'm all for directors attempting to break out of their comfort zone, even when those initial steps end in a stumble. After all, had Woody Allen not taken a hard left turn into Bergman territory with the dry, dour Interiors, we might never have gotten superior dramatic efforts like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. Similarly, Steven Spielberg's first brush with comedy, 1941, was an abject disaster that almost ended his career, but the lessons he took away from that film paid off with Catch Me If You Can, one of the fleetest, funniest pictures in his filmography. (On the other hand, The Terminal is still a chore to sit through.) So in the potentially not-to-distant future, when he makes a wrenching, beautiful film that wins every Oscar in sight, I hope to look back on Jason Reitman's Labor Day as the bad drama he had to make before he could produce a good one.

And make no mistake -- Labor Day is a bad, bad movie: a tortured, terminally stiff love story starring two leads who seem barely capable of sharing the same room -- let alone the same scene -- with each other and a young teen actor tasked with acting out a thoroughly insipid coming-of-age narrative. Working from a novel by Joyce Maynard, but more overtly cribbing from Clint Eastwood's movie version of The Bridges of Madison County, Reitman maintains such a white-knuckled grip around the proceedings that he winds up suffocating whatever authentic human emotions he hoped to tease out of the borderline farcical premise, which finds escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) forcibly taking refuge in the home of shut-in single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her adolescent son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith).

At first, mother and child are understandably less than keen about having this stranger share their living space, but as they quickly discover, if their house had to be invaded, it's a good thing the invader was Frank. Not only is he (kind of) innocent of the crime he was convicted for -- killing his wife -- but he's a gentle soul capable of dispensing valuable life lessons, ranging from how to hit a baseball to how to bake the perfect peach cobbler. (That cobbler scene, by the way, is just one "Unchained Melody" music cue away from being a recreation/parody of the iconic pottery seduction from Ghost.) For Adele, he's a replacement for the husband (Clark Gregg) who ditched her when she was fighting a losing battle with depression and for Henry, he's a shining example of middle-aged masculinity (minus the whole "escaped convict" thing) who illuminates the boy's own pathway to adulthood. So rather than encouraging him to leave at the first opportunity, they instead insist that he keep extending his visit, even as the long arm of the law (represented by a small-town cop played by -- and I kid you not -- James Van Der Beek (doing his best Deputy Doug impression) arrives at their front door.

The odd thing about the leaden Labor Day is that Reitman has proven himself perfectly capable of handling dramatic material in the past. Juno and Up in the Air both interject -- to varying degrees of success -- serious consequences into their lightly comic scenarios, while Young Adult (his best movie to date in my mind) is as incisive and sobering a character study as they come, even if it's played in a darkly funny key. Still, the director clearly felt he had to go further in establishing himself as a bona fide "Serous Filmmaker", so in Labor Day he banishes even the slightest hint of humor to the corners of the frame in favor of a forced somberness that proves as ill-fitting for him as Daredevil's red-leather ensemble was for Ben Affleck. Interiors was an equally determined poker-faced journey into unfamiliar territory, but Woody Allen's coldly clinical approach to that film at least complemented the buttoned-up central characters, a trio of emotionally constipated sisters. Labor Day is, at heart, a swooning paperback romance that Reitman wants to elevate to grand tragedy, in the same way that Eastwood found the beating heart amidst the overripe tripe that was Robert James Waller's version of Madison County.

Accomplishing that requires more confidence in the material, to say nothing of your own skill, than Reitman demonstrates here. It's admirable that he threw himself into this film without a safety net, but the result is that he's often left floundering, guided by a creative vision that isn't working and unable to respond in the moment to find solutions. That uncertainty infects the actors as well, who circle each other warily without ever truly connecting. Winslet gets away from this mess the cleanest, if only because she's got plenty of experience playing women who suffer life's slings and arrows with grace and beauty. (The only scene in the film that resonates at all is the moment where we learn the reason for Adele's depression; it's a reliably heart-tugging revelation that Winslet milks for all its worth.) Brolin, on the other hand, seems entirely baffled by the walking, talking wet dream he's meant to be playing, a rugged, soulful man's man who is supposed to be dangerous, but not too dangerous and tender, but not too tender. As for Griffith, his primary function is to serve as the viewer's (and director's) surrogate, observing the goings-on and sublimating his own personality in service of the idea that he's still just a half-formed individual. (It's left up to another actor -- who shall remain nameless -- in the film's ridiculous present-day coda, which comes complete with bad old age make-up, to show us how this experience shapes the man Henry eventually becomes.) I'd like to think that one day, Reitman will be able to look back at this film and laugh at his mistakes and miscalculations. For now, we'll just have to do the laughing for him.

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