When a new Jason Reitman movie comes to town, there are a few things you can expect. You know you’re going to get to watch a terrific cast be terrific together, and that J.K. Simmons will pop his head in at some point. You know a light guitar soundtrack will be put to use, and more likely than not, you’ll leave the picture a few laughs lighter, and maybe even a little misty eyed. Reitman has established himself as one of the modern greats when it comes to being consistently good, and while his latest effort, Labor Day, is largely of a piece with those that came before it, hints of leg stretching and boundary pushing make it his most promising film to date.
Rebounding fully from the sweetly sour but slight Young Adult, Reitman’s pet interest in social outcasts faces its biggest challenge yet in Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who’s introduced bleeding from the gut, and on the run from law enforcement. A laconic con with a murder rap sheet might not seem all that hard to humanize, seeing as previous Reitman characters have included smooth-talking tobacco lobbyists and ruthless corporate shit-canners, but from the opening credits alone, it’s clear that Labor Day is aspiring to an emotional maturity that got buried under indie quirk in Juno, and wasn’t fully achieved by Up in the Air.
Frank is a tall drink of water in a high summer heat, so even in an early 80s small town setting, it’s not hard to imagine him wooing some young lady into providing him shelter, like a beardy Warren Beatty. Desperation forces him to appeal for help from the fragile Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet), and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a young boy just hitting that age where hormones make everything confusing, especially when they’re salting wounds from his parents’ divorce. Appeal is putting their meeting in a positive light: Frank’s ticket into the dilapidated Wheeler household requires exploitation of Adele’s instability, and implied threats to Henry’s safety.
Reitman’s eclectic influences have allowed his films to engage with a variety of tones and moods, but out and out suspense makes for brand new territory. So, too, does Labor Day’s ripe and sweaty sensuality. Though barely on the cusp of manhood himself, Henry’s years spent tending to his mother’s catatonic depression have made it apparent she has some needs he can’t fulfill. To his relief, Frank’s “fugitive with a heart of gold” routine is no act, so the presence of a capital-M Man sparks a reawakening in Adele. An arrangement is struck between the Wheelers and their guest that sees the home invader turn handyman, repairing the house and its occupants over the course of a long weekend.
Labor Day presents the trickiest novel adaptation yet for the director, having to visually convey the blossoming relationship between Frank and Adele in a manner that makes some degree of logical sense, despite the danger posed by Frank’s intrusion. When Frank ties Adele to a chair to create a convincing kidnapping cover story, the camera captures how the distant longing of the characters finds release through intimacy, even if it’s of an unconventional nature. Initially, you can be left wholly unsure of whether some moments are meant to be worrying or sexy. By presenting the story through Henry’s viewpoint though, the characters’ confusion finds a proper outlet. Griffith provides a marvellous set of eyes from which to watch, delivering looks filled with guarded optimism and bruised naiveté in every scene.
Reitman’s strength as a director of actors has only grown with each film. Labor Day contains little of the zippy and clever wordplay found in Thank You For Smoking or Juno, but it doesn’t need it. The film’s most beautiful moments involve no dialogue whatsoever, at least none that’s plot relevant or trying to draw attention to itself. The frequent use of flashbacks, fantasies and a bright summer sun instill a dreamlike quality to what should be mundane montages of baseballs being thrown about, and pies being baked. When you’ve broken out of a prison filled with iron bars, or one covered in tacky plaid wallpaper, clichéd visions of small town bliss will start to seem like heaven.
It’s because it’s so easy to feel the emotions on display that the film’s script can be charged with putting too fine a point on things, and struggles when building towards a climax that’s not all that necessary in the first place. Maybe that’s the cost of having leads so outstandingly capable of speaking volumes just with gestures and fidgets. Brolin naturally inhabits roles of soft-spoken intensity so effortlessly, you rarely ever think of his work as acting. Frank simply exists. More outwardly actorly is Adele’s role, which demands surgically precise control of emotion and mannerisms across a shifting and volatile range. Winslet walks the fine line with aplomb, adding another sublime performance to a sterling career. It’s a strong reminder of why her involvement in any film will make for a headline.
What truly separates Labor Day from the rest of the Reitman oeuvre is its sense of place. While his first three features were able to capitalize on particular cultural moods of the moment, returning to them years after release has never been quite as rewarding as during initial viewings. Labor Day won’t have that problem. As both a soulful coming of age story and a passionate romantic drama, Labor Day succeeds through unwavering commitment to its characters, the complexities of who they are, and the struggle to become who they want to be. That’s movie material built to last, and if he keeps that in mind for the future, a slightly better script will make Reitman’s next film his first unreservedly great one. Failing that, Labor Day is the film he’ll be remembered for, and it’s a damn good one.
Jason Reitman has established himself as a modern great of being consistently good, and Labor Day gives him room for the kind of leg stretching and boundary pushing that make it his most promising film to date.