Labor Day

Director Jason Reitman has gone straight. Labor Day is a melodrama that’s quite different from his usual style.

Jason Reitman is known for hip, edgy movies that have a biting wit. Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult have specific points of view on modern American life. They have memorable flawed characters. They have killer opening sequences.

Labor Day, set in a small New Hampshire town over Labor Day weekend 1987, has its flawed characters. But the story has no significant agenda/message. And its title sequence is standard and ho-hum. Reitman wrote the script, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.

Frank (James Brolin) is an escaped prisoner who chooses young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his divorced mom Adele (Kate Winslet) to hide him out in their home. Over this long weekend, Adele, a lonely woman who is beset with anxiety, finds comfort in the arms of this not-so-frightening convicted murderer.

Frank cooks! He feeds his chili (whose ingredients include coffee) by the spoonful to Kate. (He has temporarily tied her and Henry up so that, should authorities bust in, they would not suspect they were aiding and abetting the convict.) When a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) brings a basket of ripe peaches, Frank makes a peach pie with help from Adele and Henry. Yes, the pie making is sensuous.

Along with romancing mom, Frank is nice to Henry. He’s also nice to Barry (Micah Fowler), a handicapped kid who Adele agrees to watch for a few hours.

Reitman teases with flashback snippets of Frank and Adele’s respective early lives and episodes that made them the people they have become. As the flashbacks become more complete, so do the characters.

Of course, most of the film is a flashback, narrated by the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire). The actor portraying the young Henry, Gattlin Griffith, is impressive in his understated performance.

As authorities intensify their manhunt, Frank and Adele make a plan to leave town and take refuge in Canada. This decision leads to the film’s climax, which will not be revealed here.

Reitman’s effort to go mainstream is partially successful. He tells this suspenseful story well, but it moves very slowly at times. Should there have been more graphic evidence of Frank and Adele’s romance? Probably yes, but they wanted a PG-13 rating—more evidence of Reitman’s desire to play to the masses.

Sadly, Labor Day feels like a Lifetime/Hallmark movie with upgraded acting.

 

 

The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby is, above all, great storytelling. Yes, it has moments of sensory overload, but Luhrman and his cast also slow things down to let us get to know the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of life in the early 1920’s, aka the Jazz Age.

With some characters, motivations are obvious. With others, the character’s needs and wants are more gradually revealed. One person leaving a Gatsby screening observed that the casting of the key players was almost perfect.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that’s among his best, plays the title role and keeps Gatsby initially mysterious. Tobey Maguire is also a standout as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book and movie, a callow Midwesterner who is awestruck by what he experiences in New York. Cary Mulligan captures Daisy Buchanan’s grace and charm, as well as some of her less savory qualities. Another impressive player is Joel Edgerton as the impetuous Tom Buchanan, who reveals all of his character’s anger and resentments. In a small role, Isla Fisher shines as Myrtle Wilson.

Trailers for Gatsby and Luhrman’s reputation for bombast may have set the bar high for those anticipating a loud and splashy, over-the-top production. Indeed, a couple of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion are mind-blowers. And the fireworks scene, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

Luhrman loves the fast fly-in shots and so do I. (They’re like zoom-ins, but the feeling is of the camera’s moving.) His bookending the film with the black and white vintage look titles is clever, but not quite as clever as the titles sequences seen two months ago for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Those who hold Fitzgerald’s novel in high esteem will appreciate the filmmaker’s respect for Fitzgerald’s text. Those who rolled their eyes upon hearing that the movie would use contemporary music in its soundtrack will find that most of the selections work in harmony with the film’s events. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is particularly memorable.

The Great Gatsby is a classic novel, one that’s taught at schools and colleges. Transferring such a tale to film is not easy. Painting a portrait of the characters that’s true to the printed work and including major plot elements requires a variety of skills. Those skills are evident here, particularly in the time management of the story.

My only qualms: I thought Gatsby’s home was substantially grander in the movie than I’d imagined from the book. Also, I pictured Gatsby to have a more weathered, rugged appearance than does DiCaprio, who looks fit and healthy.

It’s notable that The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. Hats off to Luhrman for making a great movie without a single f-word. (High school English teachers, feel free to send your students to see The Great Gatsby without fear of getting yelled at by the school board.)

The Great Gatsby is solid, with few flaws. Enjoy the story, the characters, the settings, the cars, the wardrobes. Don’t miss it, old sport!