Some thoughts on Jason Reitman’s follow-up to his remarkable Young Adult and Ari Folman’s live-action/animation hybrid, which sees Robin Wright play multiple fictionalised versions of herself.
[Brendon’s abuse of editorial license: For what it’s worth, I liked Labor Day rather more than Craig did, but anything involving pies is just how he describes it below.]
Jason Reitman never exactly strives for realism with Labor Day – an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name – but he clearly didn’t intend for it to come across quite as inauthentic and contrived as it ultimately does.
Beginning with a voiceover introduction to a close mother/son relationship between Adele (Kate Winslet) and Henry (Gattlin Griffith), we are then introduced to the recently escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin), who they encounter in a discount shop. Frank convinces Adele to drive him to her home and to harbour him, first for a few hours and then for much longer. They then, rather surprisingly, begin to fall in love.
Frank is a kind of manic pixie dream convict, albeit one who is rarely manic, who moves into the house and fixes everything up. Including the emotional instability and severe depression that has made Adele something of a prisoner in her own home, and in her mind. Geddit? Prisoner/prisoner. It’s the first of many clumsily delivered metaphors and reachers for something deeper that could have made for a rich text but generally just intellectually signpost things that we should be made to feel.
A pie-making scene at the centre of the film really stands out for its crushing earnestness and over-bearing symbolism. Adele and Henry are given a bucket of peaches by a neighbour and when Adele suggests that they might as well throw them away, Henry tasks them with making a pie. The scene that follows is painful to watch, as the three dive all their hands into one bowl and slowly make the pie, with Frank taking a paternal and instructional role in the proceedings.
When Adele suffers an anxiety attack whilst putting the finishing touch to the pie, placing the lid on it, Frank turns to her and says, “Lets put a roof on this house”. Thud.
In addition to the somewhat nauseating Nicholas Sparks-esque dialogue and plotting there are also some worrying implications in this tale of home invasion tuned whirlwind romance that don’t sit entirely well in the film’s closing moments.
Frank is far too much of a fantasy figure too – as if he is the strange creation from the love-starved mind of Adele – which would be less problematic if the film ever addressed this at all. We also find out late in the film the true nature of his crime and whilst still shocking, there is some suggestion in the narrative that we should somehow excuse him for it. Hammered home by some very uncomfortable characterisations of his victim.
Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is mostly fine, albeit just a little too consumed with magic hour light and orange hues, and the performances from Winslet and Brolin occasionally hold some appeal, but Labor Day really is something of a crushing disappointment, especially given the Reitman’s superb previous work.
The split between live-action and animation in Ari Folman’s The Congress, his follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, is a bold choice but one that seems a little hard to understand. It appears motivated by the desire to show the contrast between two worlds, but this a point made that is so simplistic that one reaches for something else to derive some other sense of purpose beyond the obvious binarism.
Beginning in the ‘real world’ The Congress features Robin Wright playing a fictionalised version of herself. The movie Wright – who from now on I shall just refer to as Wright – is struggling to find any parts and also with her son, who is suffering from a degenerative disease.
Wright is approached by her agent, Harvey Keitel in some oddly excessive make-up, to meet with the head of Miramount Studios and discuss a new technology. This new process creates a digital scan of an actor so that the studio can then make any film they want with them, manipulating them however they see fit. The actor gets paid for the scan and must agree to not act again, for the reminder of the contract. Wright agrees to a twenty year contract and submits to the scan.
The film then flashes forward and we see Wright attend a Futurological Congress – the book is based on Stanislaw Lem’s book Futurological Congress – in which Miramount will showcase the next step, a technology which allows people to actually ‘become’ the actor.
The Futurological Congress, and what spirals off from it, is all animated, the bright visuals making clear the idea that this is a fantasy world which contrasts the now more desolate and depressing outside world.
The animated world and its inhabitants, obsessed with the fantasy lives of others and projecting a manufactured version of themselves, appears to be a crude attempt to make a point about modern society and to some degree Hollywood. It’s seems at every turn to be ever more lightweight, ill-conceived and ill-informed, like the immature Baudrillardian ideas in The Matrix colliding with someone complaining about the “youth of today and their computers”.
For what it’s worth Robin Wright is stunning in the many roles that she has to play and this, combined with the fictionalised autobiography of an actress unable to get good parts, highlighted how few times we’ve seen Wright given the chance to really shine.
As a platform to relaunch Robin Wright’s career The Congress will probably prove somewhat effective but as an interesting film with a point to make it not so much stumbles as rolls head over heels down a hill and off a cliff.