Telluride: 'Labor Day' Plays in 'Argo' Slot, But Will It Follow In Oscar Footsteps? (Analysis)

Jason Reitman's latest film, which screened as the fest's "Patron Preview" and stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, features great perfs but faces an uphill climb in the best pic category, says THR's awards analyst.
Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The first film of the 40th Telluride Film Festival -- as always, the film in the "Patron Preview" slot that isn't revealed until the audience is already seated in the Chuck Jones Cinema -- turned out to be Jason Reitman's Labor Day, which Paramount will release on Christmas Day. It was greeted with warm applause, but a debate has begun to rage among awards pundits about what its awards future may hold. At the extremes, some are suggesting that it's "a sure bet" for major accolades, while others are saying it simply "doesn't work."

My own take? Somewhere in-between.

Like the last two films that opened the fest -- Alexander Payne's The Descendants and Ben Affleck's Argo -- it is a dark drama adapted from a book and features excellent performances. Unlike those other two films, though, it might well score more than one acting nomination -- Kate Winslet for best actress and Josh Brolin for best supporting actor -- but it may also face an uphill climb in the best picture race, which is generally dominated by films about matters of greater social significance than a single mother (Winslet) and her teenage son (14-year-old Gattlin Griffith) who take in and bond with a criminal (Brolin) over five days in 1987.

Reitman, who premiered all but one of his four previous feature films at the fest -- Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) debuted here, but Young Adult (2011) did not -- introduced Labor Day, appropriately enough, on the eve of the Labor Day weekend. The 35-year-old noted, to great applause, that sitting in the audience was Joyce Maynard, whose 2009 novel he adapted into the film's screenplay, and he dedicated the film to his mother, who, in the public eye, at least, often lives in the shadow of his filmmaker-father Ivan Reitman. And he parted with the words, "I'm thrilled that you're the first people to ever see this film."

My first takeaway from this film is that it is decidedly not Juno -- although it was shot by the same cinematographer (Eric Steelberg), edited by the same editor (Dana Glauberman) and even features an appearance by Juno's dad (Reitman regular J.K. Simmons). The fact of the matter is that Reitman's film's have grown increasingly dark over the years. He has always focused on stories that are, at their essence, rather dark -- lobbyists who knowingly pitch deadly products, a teenage girl's unwanted pregnancy, a man whose job is to fire people, a woman who emotionally-stunted by her past and now a wanted man forcing his way into the home of a woman and her child -- but the degree of humor with which he has approached these stories has decreased with each film. So, by that standard, this is his most "serious" film.

My second takeaway is that Reitman, with this film, reaffirms his credentials as an actors' director. I'm not sure if it's attributable more to the way he writes his characters or directs his actors, but he has always been able to help coax actors to give him their best -- Aaron Eckhart, Ellen Page and George Clooney, if not Charlize Theron, were never better than they were when they worked with him -- and this film is no exception. Winslet is always great, but Josh Brolin has only rarely played parts worthy of his talents and/or made the very most of his parts, and on this film he does both. For my money, he, as a sympathetic bad guy, and Griffith, as the lonely kid who he wins over by serving as a male presence in his life and that of his mother, are the best things about this film. In fact, their dynamic reminds me a lot of the one between Alan Ladd's gunslinger and Brandon De Wilde's impressionable youngster in Shane (1953).

And my third and final takeaway is that this is ultimately an uneven film, with a rather out-there premise if you stop to think about it (spoiler alert): a shell-shocked woman is forced by a bleeding stranger to take him to her home; then, upon entering, she tells him, "You'll have to excuse the mess"; and she ultimately bakes pies (in a way reminiscent of the pottery scene in Ghost) and has sex with him, even though it would have been possible to extricate herself from the twisted situation on numerous occasions over the course of their long weekend together. I've heard of Stockholm Syndrome, but this seems a bit much. But -- and this is a big but -- the film ends satisfyingly, leaving much of the audience was in tears, and that may be enough to keep most moviegoers from asking too many questions about the rest of it.

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