When a Great Director Makes a Bad Movie

It all started with the trailer. For months last fall, I had been eagerly awaiting the first glimpse of Labor Day, Jason Reitman's film adaptation of the bestselling Joyce Maynard novel. There were many reasons to be excited for the movie, namely that I've always been a huge fan of Reitman's work. The director has made some of my all-time favorite films, including Up in the Air and Young Adult, and I had no doubt that Labor Day would be the next addition to the list. Based on a fantastic book and starring talented actors, there was no reason to expect that Labor Day would be anything but an instant classic. And then I saw the trailer.

The first hint was the narration — Tobey Maguire? Really? Then there was the dialogue — "I don't think losing my father broke my mother's heart, but rather losing love itself." Eek. That type of line might work fine on the page of a book, but in a voice-over, it just sounded cheesy and laughable. And then there was the music, loud and distracting, as well as the text over the video: "this January... when you get a second chance... risk everything." It all seemed silly and cliche, nothing like the book it was based on. By the time "Coming Soon" appeared on-screen, I was unfortunately sure of it: Labor Day was not going to be good.

Still, for the next few months, I kept my hopes high. I re-read Maynard's book, reminding myself that the material Reitman was working with was lovely and nuanced. I watched interviews with the cast and crew, noting their seeming enthusiasm for the film and sureness of its success. I watched the trailer a few more times, and with each viewing, I liked it a little bit more. For awhile, I convinced myself that Labor Day's doomed future was just a figment of my imagination.

And then I saw the reviews. While not all were terrible — the film's Rotten Tomatoes score hovers around 57 percent — a good amount of them confirmed my fears. Labor Day, said many, was a melodramatic, overly sentimental, Lifetime-ish movie that even Reitman biggest fans wouldn't be able to defend.

How could this be? It seemed impossible that Reitman, a director whose four previous films had all been smart, balanced, and wonderfully unsympathetic, could ever make a bad movie. Reitman is an astonishing director, a filmmaker who manages to capture the humanity in all of his characters, however unlikable they are or unbelievable their situations may be. Labor Day, about an agoraphobic, depressed woman sheltering and falling in love with an escaped convict, should have been right up Reitman's alley. And yet, as one review sadly said, "Humans, film lovers and fans of Reitman's till-now-flawless filmography: We've gotta fight back."

Up until Labor Day, Reitman had been something of a filmmaking wonder. At 36, he's been nominated for four Oscars for directing, writing, and producing, with two of his films (Juno and Up in the Air) getting Best Picture nominations and the two others (Thank You For Smoking and Young Adult) receiving other major acclaim. He's a frequent mention on "best director" lists, a major influence in in the industry, and a filmmaker that many of the Hollywood's biggest stars are dying to work alongside. For years, it seemed that Reitman could do no wrong, no matter how hard he tried; even his most controversial film, Young Adult, thrilled as many critics as it alienated.

Yet for the first time, Reitman has disappointed. For nearly any other director, this wouldn't be a big deal; good people can make bad movies. For Reitman, though, whose past films have not been good, but brilliant, it matters more. The drop in quality between Young Adult and Labor Day is startling, and it makes longtime fans of the director like me worried: can Reitman's career survive such a mistake?

Hopefully, the answer is yes. Reitman's next project, an adaptation of Chad Kultgen's Men, Women & Children , could be huge. An ensemble dramedy about high school students and their parents, the film stars no less than Jennifer Garner, Emma Thompson, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Dean Norris and Judy Greer. And it was just announced that Reitman will adapt Kaui Hart Hemmings' The Possibilities , another book whose intimate, family-based story will likely lend well to film. Both projects have serious potential, and with Reitman directing, they should be handed masterfully.

Yet I can't help but worry — was Labor Day just a one-time blunder, or a sign of worse things to come? I want to believe that Reitman knows he's better than his latest movie, and that he's making sure to not repeat the mistakes he made this time around in the future. I know I'm not the only one who'd hate to see such a talented director turn into a punchline, when all who saw his previous films know that he's capable of so, so much more.