What happened to Jason Reitman? Where has the cool, hip son of Ivan Reitman who made sly, hilarious films run off to? Going by his latest, “Labor Day,” my first guess would be up his you-know-what.
Frank (Josh Brolin) is an escaped killer who comes across young Henry and his mom Adele (Kate Winslet) in a store over Labor Day weekend (get it?), and forces them — unarmed — to take him to their home so he can lay low until nightfall, when it will be easier to make an escape. Are the two afraid of the escaped con? Not really. Not even after they learn he was in prison for murder. Zero effort is made to get away from Frank, or even signal for help. In fact, this lonely mother and son are so comfortable with Frank, they want him to stick around for longer than just a few hours.
Except for being a killer, Frank really isn’t all that bad. He can cook. He cleans. He teaches Henry how to throw a baseball. So what if someone died by his hands? That’s semantics. All of this melodrama would be somewhat believable if Adele and Henry weren’t so quick to welcome the escaped convict with open arms, but it’s like they’ve been begging for an escaped con with a heart of gold to come along all their lives.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, aka the woman who moved in with then 53-year-old J.D. Salinger when she was 18-years-old, “Labor Day” reeks of the sort of smug literary adaptation that can kill a film. The dialogue is stunted, with characters speaking in that oh-so-literary way they only can in novels. Some segments that may have worked beautifully on the page, when Maynard could indulge in lush, rich writing, come across as schmaltzy on film. Sorry, but describing the way a bowl full of peaches feels between your fingers is a lot more interesting than watching people do it.
Reitman, who seemed so promising with the stellar one-two-three punch of “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” has come crashing down to earth with both “Young Adult” and “Labor Day.” He’s still got all the talent in the world, but as his fight with Sheldon Turner over writing credit for “Up in the Air” shows, the near-universal praise he received may have gone to his head. It’s his way or no way.
So little of “Labor Day” rings true. Parts of it could almost double as food porn. Look! Frank is spoon feeding a tied-up Adele. That’s intimate! Now the three of them are running their hands through a bowl of peaches. That’s bonding! They’re a family now! Gag me.
Jason Reitman is every bit as talented as he once was. Maybe “Labor Day” was an attempt to stretch his muscles into unfamiliar territory. Maybe it was an attempt to make what was probably an unfilmable novel filmable. What is for sure, though, is it’s an example of an ego run rampant. Someone stop the man before he has an M. Night Shyamalan-esque crash.