Jason Reitman is a bit of a puzzle. He's a solid visual storyteller, deft with actors, and a fine writer (the ice cream argument from THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is all his, and it's a classic). He appears to be a complete filmmaker, and yet there's a strange sense of incompleteness to most of his work. Save for the lovely JUNO, his films have a tendency to feel a little undercooked. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, though sharp at times, ultimately played like a series of satiric vignettes, while UP IN THE AIR was a young man's approximation of middle-age anxiety. YOUNG ADULT succeeded well enough on its own terms; unfortunately, those terms were bitter, cynical and misanthropic.
Reitman has made no secret of his director-crush on Billy Wilder and Hal Ashby (he even confessed that UP IN THE AIR was "me desperately trying to make my SHAMPOO"), but he's rushing things. Though well constructed, UP IN THE AIR is more speculative than felt; his world lacks the loopy specificity of Ashby's Beverly Hills or the ineffable "touch" Wilder learned under Lubitsch. Most filmmakers would be considered arrogant or insane for aspiring to such heights, but there are at least moments in that film where you see the potential - not to be Ashby or Wilder, mind you, but Lawrence Kasdan or Paul Brickman. It just seems like Reitman likes people too much to delight in their more selfish and savage qualities.
There's not a hint of satire or cynicism in Reitman's latest feature, LABOR DAY, which Reitman adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel. Set over the titular holiday weekend in 1987, the film opens on a somber, almost defeated note as it introduces us to thirteen-year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) and his deeply depressed mother Adele (Kate Winslet). Henry is the best son a thoroughly-crushed-by-life single mother could have; he engages with the outside world on her behalf, and struggles mightily to lift her deflated spirits via cute little gestures like serving as a "husband for a day" (in a platonic way, sickos). Adele is appreciative of his efforts, but they're emotional half-measures; what she needs is someone to love her as deeply and unconditionally as Henry's father (Clark Gregg) once did. For someone who can barely get out of bed on a day-to-day basis, the prospects for that kind of storybook romance are despairingly dim.
Enter Frank (Josh Brolin), the very handsome escaped convict who needs immediate medical attention. Henry encounters Frank by the magazine rack of the local grocery store, and is firmly, though not forcefully, convinced into giving the fugitive a ride. Adele is reluctant to sign off on the Frank's request, but he is convincing in that way that tall, dark prison escapees with open abdominal wounds tend to be. And so the trio return to Adele's house, where Frank will hide out for the weekend until he can hop a passing train.
Frank's demeanor is calm and deliberate, but you don't quite trust him at first. What kind of convict are we dealing with: is he as reasonable as he appears, or are we waiting for a third-act explosion of viciousness ala Flannery O'Connor? If you don't know Maynard's novel, there's a terrific tension to Frank's early moments at Adele's house. Every interaction is charged with the possibility of violence. Is there a word or a gesture that's going to set this guy off, or is he that classic, misunderstood Hollywood criminal who only wants to clear his name of a crime he didn't commit?
Reitman gives the game away when a concerned neighbor (J.K. Simmons) drops by to check in on Henry and Adele. As Henry sees to the neighbor, Frank wraps his arm around Adele's neck as if to restrain her. But there's no resistance on her end, and a complete absence of malice on his. It's an embrace. In that moment, Frank's unspoken desire to protect Adele intermingles powerfully with her yearning for emotional security, and we suddenly realize we're in heavily metaphorical SHANE territory. This is a great big, heart-on-its-sleeve tale of romantic renewal viewed from the perspective of an awkward kid entering young adulthood. It's the kind of film where a mysterious man can heal a family by baking a perfect peach cobbler, and you either wince at the corniness of it all or fall for it because the world needs old-fashioned tear-jerkers, too.
It helps that Reitman plays up the '87 setting for all its softly-lit nostalgic worth (even though he errs by sending Henry and Adele to see 1985's D.A.R.Y.L. at the local movie theater); I was exactly Henry's age that year, and his first-blush flirtation with a quirky classmate rings wistfully true. But Reitman is in such complete command of the tone that a direct connection to the era isn't required; he believes in the film's plainspoken message, and energetically indulges in the genre's well-worn conventions. And it works in large part because he has cast two of the best film actors of our time, and elicited performances that skirt career-best territory. It is both exhilarating and frightening to watch Winslet's Adele emerge from her shell; this is her last-gasp shot at a life, and her happiness hinges entirely on a man who's one false step away from a probable life sentence. We're so used to watching Winslet lose this battle that it's easy to view the whole proposition as hopeless, but she's never been paired with an actor as confident and, let's face it, macho as Brolin. This isn't some neurotic goofball or philandering failure; this is a strong, capable, principled man who will do anything to ensure the happiness of the woman he's fallen (if quickly) in love with. It's a new dynamic for both actors, and it's remarkably combustible stuff. Brolin has always felt a tad too dark for a romantic lead, but that's only because the genre has been overrun with fresh-faced pushovers. While I hate to take the Lord's name in vein, I honestly think there's some Robert Mitchum in his game.
Hollywood doesn't bother much with classical romance or weepies anymore, and when they do it's typically handed off to studio hacks who plod beat-by-beat through some cynically concocted Nicholas Sparks novel. So what a wonderful surprise it is to see The Man Who Would Be Wilder give the sardonic posturing a rest and throw himself into something earnest and hopeful and true. You may feel emotionally clobbered by the end of LABOR DAY, but it's the easiest thing in the world to give yourself over to it. Beautifully crafted at every level, and written with more heart than we know what to do with nowadays, the goddamn thing just works.