Paramount via Everett Collection
Three sleepless nights and a coffee-fueled morning after Labor Day, and I'm still waiting for the kicker. The reversal, the twist, the big reveal that Jason Reitman — a talented filmmaker and prodigious wordsmith who managed such sophisticated character material in each of his previous movies — wasn't actually telling the story I understood it to be. That I missed something altogether, some nectar of honesty buried beneath layers of theatrical pie crust. Owing to the respect I have for Reitman, his starring players Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, and a few fellow film critics who saw beauty in Labor Day, I'll keep on entertaining the idea that I overlooked the picture's authenticity. But for now, I've got to give benefit of the doubt to my senses — hey, we all have deadlines — and concude: this movie is full of s**t.
This is no victimless crime, as Labor Day sets us up in the household of depression- and anxiety-ridden Adele (Winslet) and her 12-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), promising a tale we never get to hear. The film jumps right into the former's struggles with stinging mental illness and what appears to be a blossoming Oedipus complex in the latter — in The Wonder Years-style narration delivered by a flu-ridden Tobey Maguire, Henry proudly affirms that his mother is his whole life: he gives her back rubs, runs her baths, takes her on dates, and asserts himself her ad hoc husband to eradicate the loneliness that cripples her so (Clark Gregg plays Henry's absent father, a "Buck up, sport" type dad who lives across town with his "better" family). On one of their monthly outings to the Piggly Wiggly, or whatever — the film takes place in a 1987 that you'd swear was actually 1959 — Adele and Henry happen upon Frank (Brolin), a blood-soaked menace on the lam who makes tacit threats at Henry's safety to convince the rattled mother to allow him room and board until he can make a spring for the border.
And then, of course, they fall in love. Once Frank is settled into Adele's spacey Massachusetts two-story, he reveals himself the perfect man who fixes leaks, tends gardens, bakes pies, and whisks the shaken woman out of her decaying shell. It's clear why she takes to him — Frank is a heaven-sent gender reversal of the Natalie Portmans and Kirsten Dunsts and Zooey Deschanels who have fallen from the sky to turn things around for their broken beaus with spontaneity and singing and hamster funerals and cupcakes. In Frank's case, pies. I really can't overemphasize the position of the pies in this movie. They're everywhere.
Past the point of keeping Frank hidden from those pesky neighbors, it doesn't really serve as much concern to Adele — or, far less forgivably, to the movie itself — that he's an escaped con who threatened her son's life in order to earn a place to hide from the cops. Labor Day is not interested in redemption or excuse for Frank; it goes so far as to insist that we're wrong for distrusting him in the first place. But no. This guy, for all his redeeming qualities, is a problem.
Paramount via Everett Collection
Labor Day is even less interested in honing the authenticity of its other adult lead, Adele, who earns Frank's attention for no discernible reason other than that she seemed vulnerable enough to con into taking him back to her place. After that? Guilt, maybe. A knight-in-shining-armor syndrome that keeps him attracted to such an open wound. Just as Frank lives up to the one-dimensional angelicism of the aforementioned heroines of modern cinema, Adele is the counterpart to their boyfriends. Vacant and passive, just waiting to be saved by people who have nothing going on inside of them other than the drive to play savior. On top of that, she's got a pretty volatile emotional illness in full swing. But it's nothing love can't cure, right?
With so much wrong to cover in regards to the movie's central love story, I haven't even gotten to Henry yet: the good-natured, sexually curious middle schooler through whom the story is told. Although Henry at least has a real relationship with Frank, who stands in as dad and teaches him to play baseball, fix a car, and — of course — bake pies, every one of the boy's interesting conceits that is teased by the movie gets tossed out in favor of... well, that's the million dollar question. We're introduced to Henry through what appears to be a complex relationship with his mother, whom he views in part as a wife — without payoff, or even exploration, this is just some odd and incomplete stuff with which to open a movie. His distrust of Frank is entertained, but discarded almost immediately thereafter. Just about everything that might serve as character work for Henry is dealt with in the film's 3-minute epilogue. Spoilers: there are pies involved.
If it weren't for the severity of the characters' flimsiness, you might not risk an occuluar injury from all the eye rolls provoked by the ridiculous plot maneuvers this movie cranks out. We're talking doors left ajar, oblivious bank tellers, and the idea that James Van Der Beek can be accepted as a police officer materializing at the summit of the film's dramatic climax. All this, not to mention some atrociously goofy dialogue, feels like it was rescued from Nicholas Sparks' waste basket — only in glimmers of Jason Reitman's usual shtick through a loquacious tertiary character (Brighid Fleming playing "Psuedo Juno") who institutes far more narrative turns than she really should are you reminded of whose movie you expected to be watching.
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And these slight reminders might be why Labor Day is such an aggressive failure: it had potential. At the onset of the film, we thought we were diving into something juicy. When things get more ridiculous than you can accept, you convince yourself that it's all going to pay off with an honest, deconstructive revelation. But three days later, I'm still looking for what I missed. The disclosure of the true activity behind the false, theatrical curtain. But there doesn't seem to be anything there: just flat characters, an ill-conceived romance, dead-end arcs, and so many motherf**king pies.
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When you're in high school it feels like the whole world is against you. In writer/director Stephen Chbosky's high school-set The Perks of Being a Wallflower the whole world may actually be against Charlie (Logan Lerman) whose freshman year of high school should be listed in the dictionary under "Murphy's Law." Plagued by memories of two significant deaths as well as general social anxiety Charlie takes a passive approach to ninth grade. A few days of general bullying later he falls into a friendship with two misfit seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who teach him how to live life without fear. Perks starts off with a disadvantage: introverts aren't terribly engaging but Chbosky surrounds Charlie with a vivid cast of characters who help him blossom and inject the coming-of-age tale with a necessary energy.
Set in a timeless version of the '90s Charlie's world is full of handwritten journals mixtapes and a just-tolerable amount of tweed. He writes letters to a nameless recipient as a way of venting a preventative measure to keep the teen from repeating a vague incident that previously left him hospitalized. The drab background of Pittsburgh fits perfectly with Charlie's blank existence. And when he finally comes to life as part of Patrick and Sam's off-beat clique so does the city. Like the archaic vinyl records Sam lusters over (The Smiths of course!) Chbosky visualizes Charlie's journey through the underbelly of suburban Pennsylvania with a raw emotion blooming lights and film grit at every turn. Michael Brook's score and an adeptly curated soundtrack accompanies the episodic affair which centers on Charlie's search for a song he hears during the most important moment of his life.
The charm that keeps The Perks of Being a Wallflower from collapsing under its own super seriousness come from Chbosky's perfectly cast ensemble. Lerman has a thankless job playing Charlie; often constrained to a half-smile and shy shrug Lerman is never allowed to grapple with Charlie's greatest fears and problems until (too) late in the film. Watson nails the spunky object-of-everyone's-affection but she's outshined by Mae Whitman as Mary Elizabeth another rebellious friend in the pack who takes a liking to Charlie. The real star turn is Miller riding high from We Need to Talk About Kevin and taking a complete 180 with Patrick a rambunctious wiseass who struggles to have an openly gay relationship with the football captain but covers his pain with humor. A scene of confrontation — at where else the cafeteria — is one of the best scenes of the year.
Chbosky adapted Perks of Being a Wallflower from his own book and the movie feels stifled by a looming structure. But it nails the emotional beats — there is no obvious path to surviving high school. It's messy shocking and occasionally beautiful. That about sums up Perks.
Jason Reitman may be directing Young Adult, a dark romantic comedy with a script from Diablo Cody. Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron is also in talks to join the film. Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith, Mason Novick, and Cody are producing the film at Mandate.
The story follows a divorced writer (Theron) who returns to her hometown after an identity crisis and begins stalking her high school sweetheart.
If Reitman joins the film, it will reunite him with Juno collaborator Cody. The duo’s previous effort grossed over $200 million on a $7 million budget, and won Cody an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Reitman’s most recent film, Up In The Air, was nominated for 6 Oscars, while Cody’s horror film Jennifer’s Body was a critical and commercial bust. Cody’s short screenwriting career is already a controversial one, her belabored slang and pop culture-filled scripts have inspired both devoted fans and venemous detractors. Young Adult may not inspire the same furious divisions, as The Playlist’s script review said the script was “Cody’s most mature effort to date”, and had largely dispensed with the distracting dialogue style. Whatever your feelings about Juno, I hope that Reitman and Cody manage to get back co-star Jason Bateman for the “high-school sweetheart” role, as it would reunite Arrested Development’s funniest romantic couple. MR. F!