Review: Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin feel stranded in the arch and odd ‘Labor Day’

Does Jason Reitman have an authorial voice?

It’s a fair question to ask at this point. After all, he’s got a screenplay credit on four of the six feature films he’s directed if you include “Men, Women & Children,” which is in production now. When you look at the six films, though, I don’t really see a common thread or see a common voice between them. Even “Juno” and “Young Adult,” both written by Diablo Cody, have very different sensibilities. And “Thank You For Smoking” is about as far away from “Labor Day” in tone and content as possible.

Does he have to have a recognizable singular voice that we hear in each new project? Is that a requirement if we’re going to treat him as a “serious” filmmaker? Or is the real mark of his talent his ability to bring a different voice to each story based on the story itself? After all, “Thank You For Smoking” started as a brutally satirical novel that is outrageous in a way that is totally at odds with the sort of wry sincerity of “Up In The Air” or the blistering anger that simmers just below the surface of “Young Adult.” Reitman seems far more concerned with finding the best way to tell each story, and less concerned with making himself the main focus of things.

For several years now, Reitman’s been talking about “Labor Day” as a passion project, something he was determined to make, and I’m curious what it was that first got him hooked on the Joyce Maynard novel. I can see him being a fan of “To Die For,” which has the same sort of jaded world-view as “Thank You For Smoking,” but I’m at a loss to try and imagine how the gooey and, frankly, weird sentimentality of “Labor Day” appealed to him. It seems so far away from the films he’s made so far that if I didn’t know better, I would swear this was something he was pressed into making as a favor to someone else. While I can’t say he’s got any one single voice he’s used in his films so far, this is such a departure that I’m not sure I get it.

Dylan Minnette stars as Henry Wheeler, a young man doing his best to hold his mother together in the wake of a painful divorce. Adele (Kate Winslet) basically retreats into agoraphobia, and Henry finds himself struggling to play every possible role in her life. The film is structured as a memory piece, an adult Henry looking back at a formative event in his life, and like any memory piece, you have to view this as someone’s memory of an event rather than the actual event. You’re seeing things through the filter of memory, which is not an uncommon device for a coming of age movie. But if this is meant to be Henry’s recollection of the long holiday weekend where Frank (Josh Brolin) came into their lives, it is a tonal misfire that ends up coming across as both naive and creepy, a combination I’m fairly sure Reitman did not have in mind.

Part of the problem is that even as a memory piece, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the entire set-up, and so the details hardly matter. During one of Adele’s few trips out of the house, she and Henry are approached at a grocery store by tall, dark, freely bleeding Frank, and he asks them to give him a ride home. It’s apparent from the very start that Frank is in trouble and hiding from the law, and sure enough, when they do get to the house, Frank ties Adele up for a while. Just to make things look good.

Here’s my biggest issue with the movie: Frank doesn’t exist. He is such an idealized fantasy figure, a perfect man who sweeps into the lives of these two lonely people at the exact right moment. Over the course of the weekend he spends hiding with them, he teaches Henry to play baseball, he repairs everything about the house and the grounds that has fallen into disrepair, he instructs both of them in the making of a perfect apple pie, and he and Adele fall deeply in love, Frank’s patient kindness luring her out of her self-imposed exile. Just so we’re sure that everyone gets everything they want in this one perfect three-day stretch, Henry meets a young girl in town who he makes a connection with, and Maika Monroe plays Mandy as just a big a cliche as Brolin plays Frank.

Winslet has never seemed as mannered and phony as she does here. It’s almost not her fault, though. I’m not sure any actress could make a character like Adele work as a real person. She’s such a broken creature at the beginning, but it’s obvious that all she needs is a little careful stroking before she’ll blossom once again. Her relationship with Henry is dysfunctional at best, deeply inappropriate at worst. And once Frank shows up, the deep meaningful looks start right away. It’s such a tired romance novel situation, and yet Reitman treats it like it’s all deeply important and serious, and it ends up feeling stodgy, suffocating.

Reitman’s working with several of his regular collaborators here, and Rolfe Kent’s score is entirely appropriate to the film Reitman’s made, just like Eric Steelberg’s photography. It’s the film as a whole that doesn’t work. I’m all for a strong love story, but there’s nothing you’ll see here that will seem remotely surprising or compelling once you know the set-up. Frank is such a mild-mannered pure-hearted misunderstood figure that there’s no drama to any of it. Isn’t there more friction if Adele finds herself drawn to someone who is capable of genuinely terrible things, but who is tender with her? By making Frank the perfect man, this entire thing feels phony.

Chalk this one up to Reitman needing to get it out of his system. Whatever it was that he loved about the book, he’s failed to make the case for it in film form, and “Labor Day” is the first time I’ve felt like he’s made a truly forgettable movie. For all involved, “Labor Day” ends up a strange, unsatisfying detour.

“Labor Day” is now playing in limited release and opens everywhere on January 31st.