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.
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
Remember when CNN’s Larry King prodded Ross Perot to run for president in 1992 against George Bush and Bill Clinton? In the unexpectedly straight-faced Man of the Year Jon Stewart-ish fake TV newsman Tom Dobbs (Williams) makes a similar White House run at a fan’s urging. And the sharp-tongued finger-pointing political satirist wins. But think again if you next expect director/writer Barry Levinson—the brains behind Wag the Dog—to explore the comic possibilities of a president trying to run the country without Democratic or Republican support. Instead Levinson’s stupidity turns Man of the Year into an overwrought cautionary tale about e-voting. See a computer voting error accidentally manipulated the results in Dobbs’ favor. But rather than examine the fallout of a tainted election Man of the Year quickly and preposterously goes from The Candidate to Enemy of the State. Levinson unwisely shifts his attention to the woman responsible for discovering the glitch in her company’s electronic voting system. While the president-elect makes public appearances dressed as George Washington Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) discovers that her bosses will do anything—including resorting to violence—to stop her from going public for fear the scandal would bankrupt their company. Having worked together on Good Morning Vietnam and Toys Levinson knows when to let Williams cut loose. Accordingly the motor-mouthed master of improv doesn’t hold back especially when he’s riffing on issues of the day with his advisors (played with uncharacteristic restraint by a wheel-bound Christopher Walken and with much jittery arm-waving by standup comedian Lewis Black). More often than not though Williams can be overbearing and Levinson’s too afraid to tell him to stop. But when events turn serious and Dobbs runs out of wisecracks the schmaltzy annoying Williams of Patch Adams rears his ugly head. And then you can’t wait for Williams to again go all wild and crazy. Unfortunately that’s doesn’t happen too much after Linney’s Eleanor Green rains on Dobbs’ victory parade. You have to pity Linney. While everyone else is joking about appointing Bruce Springsteen secretary of state she finds herself at the center of a conspiracy that not even Will Smith could survive in one piece. And the usually sturdy Linney unfortunately cracks under the pressure. She looks lost haggard and sadly uncomfortable whenever she’s in Williams’ presence. Man of the Year is a greatest act of cowardice committed to film this year by a director with much to gain and everything to lose. And that’s a shock considering Levinson—who made his name with Diner and Tin Men—desperately needs to restore his tarnished reputation after the disastrous Bandits Envy and Sphere. There’s no denying that Man of the Year had potential. The current climate lends itself to an honest and enterprising exploration of a serious challenge to the two-party political system. Had he settled on making another stinging satire in the vein of Wag the Dog Levinson would have gotten away with such an unbelievable post-election turn of events. But Man of the Year is not the wacky sitcom-ish farce its trailer suggests. It’s too grim and cumbersome for its own good and that unfortunately renders Levinson’s efforts a waste and his intentions politically irrelevant. Surely Levinson should have realized that what worked once for him with Wag the Dog would have worked again with Man of the Year. Judging by this mess and his recent misfires Levinson’s clearly lost his touch—and his nerve.