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Telluride Review: Jason Reitman's 'Labor Day' Starring Josh Brolin & Kate Winslet

by Chris Willman
August 29, 2013 9:25 PM
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Labor Day, Kate Winslet ,Josh Brolin

Short of helming a "Smurfs" sequel, it's tough to imagine writer-director Jason Reitman going for a greater change of pace than he has with "Labor Day," a full-immersion exercise in the old-fashioned women's weepie that skews far closer to Nicholas Sparks' brand of contrivance than Diablo Cody territory. Give him credit for breaking with trademark satirical impulses so completely that counting the laughs in his self-penned script—based on a 2010 Joyce Maynard novel—doesn't require two hands. But the (sorry) laboriousness of the plot's romance-novel machinations ensures there'll be at least a few dry eyes in the house.

Kate Winslet goes for even greater heights of post-"Mildred Pierce" mousiness—mostly successfully—as a divorced housewife who's developed such post-split jitters that she can't even consider leaving the house without a close-up of her shaking hands. Her first venture out for groceries in a month goes even worse than she imagines it might, when her teenaged son Henry introduces her to the bleeding escaped convict who's about to kidnap them. Fortunately, said escapee looks like Josh Brolin, and he plans on taking them home, which works out well for an agoraphobic.

The movie enters its dreariest phase as it quickly settles in as a three-hander in which the trio will not only learn to trust one another but begin harboring dreams of becoming the perfect nuclear family. And "perfect" is the only way to describe Brolin's convict, who wants nothing more than to caulk the shower and bake peach pies when he's not wondering how Winslet's smarmy ex (Clark Gregg) ever let such a prize get away. There will be secrets revealed on both sides—oh, there will be secrets! Given the nature of the genre, it's no spoiler to reveal that the murder charge TV news channels keep trumpeting against Brolin's supposed criminal is thoroughly unjust, and that the real reason Winslet's hubby left only makes her all the more precious to her on-the-lam suitor.

An escape plan to domestic bliss in Canada is hatched, but all three characters make so many repeated blunders in their very occasional interactions with the outside world that it's pretty clear one of their gaffes will finally prevent them from ever attending the Toronto International Film Festival as locals. (The film, however, will play Toronto, following Friday's Telluride premiere.) Get out your hankies, if you're inclined, as the movie is not titled "Labor Day, Christmas, and Beyond," after all.

Winslet does as fine a job of keeping her inherent strength under wraps as possible, but Brolin has little to work with character-wise as he ever has on the big screen, playing an unfailingly righteous, tender and impossibly sexy figure who'd be the perfect man if he could ever leave the house. (Actually, his 24/7 presence makes him even more swoon-worthy). The most impressive turn comes from Gattlin Griffith as the mom-worshipping 8th grader whose shy insularity suggests deeper layers than Brolin's strong, silent type is good for.

The one unintentional laugh from the premiere came during an epilogue that flashes forward into the future from the principal action's 1987 setting. Griffith is digitally aged up a bit and a deep voice comes out of his mouth, which might render as a Mercedes-McCambridge-as-Beelzebub moment in its own right. But the fact that we've heard voiceover narration throughout the film from higher-voiced Tobey Maguire, recalling the film's events as an adult, makes the kid's one line as a baritone all the odder.

Reitman seemed to have achieved a masterful new balance between comic asides and personal tragedy in his last picture, the seriously underrated "Young Adult," which didn't get much traction with either the Academy or public. He's made as polar opposite a movie imaginable this time, which may land him in better stead, though it's hard to tell from the mixed reaction in Telluride. Getting earnest is swell, but for anyone who thought emotional complexity would be a hallmark of all Reitman's films, that peach pie is a little hard to swallow. [C] 

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival to date by clicking here. 

Other thoughts on "Labor Day" from our peers and other critics on page 2. 

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  • junohater | September 17, 2013 1:09 PMReply

    Mainstream film (and most non-mainstream film) is a losing proposition these days. When will film-goers get over their Stockholm Syndrome with Hollywood and realize they're not getting what they pay for?

  • catherine | September 13, 2013 3:15 AMReply

    I expected to see some improvements in my love life after I contacted Ekaka and asked him to send out a spell to the Universe for me, but I didn’t expect a life-changing experience, that’s for sure! Still, though, that’s what I got! I’m not only in love, I’m going to be moving to my soon-to-be-fiance’s state next month! We probably would never even have met if it weren’t for ekakaspelltemple@yahoocom and his wonderful powers of peace and love. I wish you all the peace and love you sent me, DR Ekaka.

  • MDL | September 4, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    This is a film I rather enjoyed while watching it but once I started thinking about it I realized its weaknesses. Reitman said he followed the book very closely which means the blame, perhaps, can go to the author more than the filmmaker. However, it seems that sometimes visualizing the action of a book can create issues that might not arise when compared to reading a book.

  • Alex P | August 31, 2013 1:10 AMReply

    Great review. Looking forward to seeing it regardless to see whether I synch up with you or not.

  • kamikamran | August 30, 2013 6:09 AMReply

    this is really a good Movie[that i haven't seen yet]

  • james | August 30, 2013 12:03 AMReply

    Nepotism, no talent.

  • Oogle monster | August 29, 2013 11:19 PMReply

    Kinda bummed to see such mixed reactions. As a HUGE fan of Young Adult (I agree- seriously underrated and hands down Reitman's best work to date), I was hoping he would knock Labor Day out of the park. It's one of my favorite novels in recent years and it's actually perfectly tailored for film.

  • yer | August 29, 2013 9:47 PMReply

    I'm not a fan of Reitman as a director at all. He's completely bland and paint by the numbers. He makes a slew of good but never great films that lack any type of artistic flair. He kind of reminds me of Alexander Payne in that regard. Just dull stuff all around.

  • jean vigo | August 30, 2013 1:21 AM

    I was thinking the same thing - the similarities to Alexander Payne. It's s if he's followed Payne's methodology by-the-numbers. I never "got" either's work. I don't often agree with critic Armnd White, but he nailed it about Payne when he said his films felt "very minor." It's true. Much critical ado about not very much....
    Both filmmakers also share the process of taking other people's ideas/stories and adapting them. Nepotism is immaterial to me; Reitman is OK - not a hack nor an auteur.

  • Ken Guidry | August 29, 2013 10:10 PM

    Thank You For Smoking and Juno had plenty of "artistic flair," man. Watch them again. But I do think he's toned things down considerably with his last two films, which relied primarily on story and characters. If that's the case again with Labor Day, then I can see why it may not have been as engrossing a film. But seriously, I didn't even realize until I watched them again, but he did a lot of interesting stuff with those films.

  • Ken Guidry | August 29, 2013 9:45 PMReply

    Well this is disappointing. I hope I disagree!

  • sheyla | August 29, 2013 9:33 PMReply

    I hope Anne Thompson takes Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant, into consideration.

  • oogle monster | August 29, 2013 11:19 PM


  • douche | August 29, 2013 9:31 PMReply

    you guys gonna do a write up of sorcerer or fucking what? nothing on sorcerer really really really????????? nothing on friedkins golden lion nothing nothing. for reals fucking do something already been waiting all fucking day.

  • SHEYLA | August 30, 2013 11:59 AM


  • douche | August 29, 2013 10:00 PM

    Happy to help tom. Haven't you wanted some sorcerer today as well? If i was at venice man my ass would've made that a top priority son.

  • Tom | August 29, 2013 9:41 PM

    This is the funniest thing I've read all day.

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