Writer/director Jason Reitman burst onto the scene with the indie-twee equivalent of a bang with ‘Thank You for Smoking’ and ‘Juno’. Unfortunately, the quirky charms of those flicks faded fast on repeated viewings. Reitman seemed to pick up on that and took steps towards maturity with the Oscar-nominated ‘Up in the Air’ and the oddly underrated ‘Young Adult’. As the latest in a long line of comedy directors dying to be taken seriously, the filmmaker now attempts to follow through on his ambitions by cranking out a straight-up drama in ‘Labor Day’.
The good news is that Reitman doesn’t embarrass too badly. He proves to have the directorial chops to craft a fairly enigmatic piece of work for about an hour. The bad news is that his film limps across the finish line with a disappointing final act that soils everything that came before it. That’s probably as much a fault of Joyce Maynard’s source novel as anything that Reitman did as a screenwriter or director, but it still leaves a sour taste.
This story is about a boy, voiced by Tobey Maguire in nostalgic narration and played by Gattlin Griffith as the 13-year-old protagonist. He’s one of those sad-eyed kids from a broken home, stuck with a single mother (Kate Winslet) who is so beset by insecurity and crippling phobias that she can barely leave the house. To make matters worse, he also has a sad-sack weekend dad (Clark Gregg) who brings even less to the parenting table. (Mommy might be overbearing, but at least she’s present.) The kid hardly has an ideal life, so it’s almost exciting when an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) suddenly crashes the mother/son pity party. At first, Brolin appears to be an oddly polite kidnapper, but soon turns into a full-on pie-baking, catch-playing father figure. He even seduces Winslet’s broken mother and somehow, for the first time, Henry almost feels as if he has a real family. Of course, narrative bubbles like that are built to burst, so such tantalizing intrigue can’t last forever.
For a while, Reitman pulls off his dramatic debut decently. He does a good job of generating tension, handles the visuals proficiently, gets solid performances out of most of his actors (oddly, the typically excellent Winslet is the overly-mannered weak link here), and finds an intriguingly ambiguous tone within the fractured family dynamics. If ‘Labor Day’ could somehow only be about the weird kidnapping/makeshift family between the central trio without concern for narrative closure, it could have been an interesting character piece.
Unfortunately, once Reitman starts wrapping things up, he spreads the cheese on thick. It all starts with flashbacks to Winslet and Brolin’s past that concludes in irritatingly pat ways. Then things really go off the rails in a finale that takes the film into weepy melodrama land, never to return (almost at Nicholas Sparks levels, but not quite). It’s not enough to completely undo everything that went right in the first half of the movie, but it’s enough to get ‘Labor Day’ bumped from a planned Christmas awards-courting release into the January dumping ground where failed Hollywood dramas go to die. This film deserved that shabby treatment, but if Reitman is convinced that dramas are to be the core of his filmmaking future, he at least shows enough promise in the early going to suggest that isn’t a fool’s errand. He just needs to write a script with a functioning third act next time. Sadly, such scripts are hard to come by.