Jason Reitman & “Labor Day”: Why The Melodramatic Change?

We all love the big name auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson who have very big, clear stylistic tics that connect their films and let us know what to expect from them, but other less showy directors end up falling to the wayside just because they’re less flashy. Jason Reitman, whose new film Labor Day opened nationwide this weekend (placing 7th at the box office with a paltry $5 million), is one of these directors and a personal favorite of mine. But the main connective tissue between his past works is oddly missing from his latest, and as it just so happens his latest is his worst film yet, the only one I would say I’ll never sit through again.

Reitman struggled for years to get his adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You For Smoking off the ground, but when he finally did in 2005 it was a sizable hit critically and financially. More importantly, it established Reitman’s fascination with unlikable, polarizing, and  interesting protagonists. He cast Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Reitman shows how the public generally despises him, yet Naylor is so personable and a great arguer that he thrives in his professional life. His personal life is trickier, dealing with a bitter ex-wife and a manipulative journalist, but that all isn’t too bad until Reitman forces him to confront the issues he’s been glossing over (the fact that cigarettes will, on occasion, kill you) head on. It’s kind of the obvious route to take, but it leads to some provocative ideas and Reitman isn’t afraid to keep showing Naylor in an unflattering light.

Next, Reitman made the film that stands out the most from his filmography, mostly because it was penned by someone else. Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno is undeniably all the things people criticize it for: it’s very quirky, full of odd slang and nicknames, and it’s a very laid back look at a tough subject. But those are all elements that work to the film’s advantage to me (well, okay, the slang can get to be a bit much at times), and Cody isn’t afraid to make Juno a very flawed individual (though nowhere near as bad as the other protagonists here).

Reitman then returned to similar territory as his first film. Up in the Air follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who explains his job as “I work for another company that lends me out to pussies like Steve’s boss who don’t have the balls to sack their own employees.” He is, essentially, a fire-er, flying all across the country constantly to different offices to tell people they’ve been let go. And thanks to the recession, business is thriving. Bingham isn’t completely reprehensible, after all it isn’t his decision to let these people go, but he is effectively profiting off of their losses. Even more so than Naylor’s, Bingham’s personal life is lacking. He loves traveling and despises being back in his home, doesn’t communicate much with family and avoids clarifying his relationships with others (particularly Vera Farmiga’s Alex). Up is Reitman’s best film by a good stretch, and Bingham is one of his more sympathetic yet unpleasant characters.

Reitman next teamed with Cody again for a movie that seemed right up his alley, one centered on perhaps his most unpleasant character yet. While the exploitative businessmen of Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air at least are charming and wrestle with the ethics of their job, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary in Young Adult is just a vixen, a very spiteful and unpleasant woman at her core. She’s the popular girl in high school whose life has now fallen to pieces, who comes back to her hometown to desperately grasp at the pieces of her past that still remain. But Reitman and Cody never try to portray Mavis as sympathetic, they never try to redeem her, rather they try to understand her and just why she acts the way she does. In many ways she’s the most hateable and fascinating character Reitman has ever studied (Theron certainly gives the best lead performance in any of his films).

And now we get to Labor Day, Reitman’s latest film which is also his most out of place and hands down his worst work. It’s so far from anything else Reitman has done it’s kind of hard to fathom just what he was thinking making this part middle aged Nicholas Sparks drama, part coming of age story. It could also be titled Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie, as it centers on a depressed divorcee Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith, who seemingly knows how to make one facial expression) who are taken hostage by Frank, an escaped convict (a very miscast Josh Brolin). But as Frank hides from the police there, the longer he fixes up the house, cooks (including the already infamous sensual peach pie scene), and plays baseball with Henry, and both mother and son quickly come to love him as a member of their family. It’s a premise that seems like it would be much more at home as a Lifetime TV movie, not as the latest from a filmmaker with a history like this.

So the big question is: why? Assuming that this wasn’t just some sort of paycheck job, a change as drastic as this is kind of inexplicable. Maybe Reitman, tired of these flawed characters, wanted someone like Winslet’s character who you could really root for, but in a way Brolin fits the flawed character model, it’s just presented in such a drastically different melodramatic way that it’s a sharp left turn for the director known for his acerbic, satirical wit. It’s really hard to see what Reitman was going for with this mild disaster, but he already has other more promising projects in development, so with luck this will just be a minor misstep.

Did you see Labor Day this weekend?

Article by Wesley Emlbidge


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