Jason Reitman

The Front Runner

07/01/19

It’s 1988 and Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is the voice of hope for a new generation of American liberals. He’s the clear front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and young people are queuing up to work on his campaign, relinquishing their jobs and moving away from their families, believing they can help to secure real change. Hart has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in four key areas – economics, education, employment and ethics – and the charm and charisma to pose a threat to the incumbent Reagan-led Rebublicans.

But he’s naïve about the extent to which he will be held personally accountable to the public, believing his private life irrelevant to the political sphere. So, when he has a casual and ill-advised affair right in the middle of this most crucial campaign, the resulting press exposure completely kills off his career.

Jason Reitman’s film focuses mainly on this moral conundrum: where do we draw the line? Does it matter if politicians betray their spouses if they’re steadfast in their duties to the state? Or can we infer from their domestic infidelities a sense of how they will treat us, the people that they serve? Does the press have a duty to focus more on policies than peccadilloes? What matters most, in the end?

We’re not really offered any answers here and, while I applaud the lack of sensationalism, it does mean that there’s a certain lack of drama too. The storytelling is so nuanced and subtle that it verges on the dull. It seems a little dated too: in this era of Trumpian excess, an extra-marital fling seems almost too quaint to care about. Where are the porn stars and the Russian oligarchs, the pussy-grabbing and the bogus charities? Ah, maybe that’s the point. Have the tabloids so inured us to scandal that we’re unable to see when it crosses into something truly worrying?

There are some strong performances here. Jackman, of course, excels in the lead role, and Mamoudou Athie and Molly Ephraim stand out as the journalist and intern who, respectively, witness their idol’s fall, forced to recognise reluctantly both the limitations of the man and the demise of their Democratic dream. But Vera Farmiga (as Hart’s wife, Lee) and JK Simmons (as campaign manager, Bill Dixon) are criminally underused, and the whole film feels as if it needs a shot of caffeine or adrenaline.

In the end, this just isn’t compelling enough to make the trip to the cinema worth the effort. Close, but no cigar.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Labour Day

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11/09/14

Watching this slice of sweaty, deep-fried Americana, one thought kept recurring. What was Jason Reitman thinking? The director of Juno and Up In The Air is clearly capable of good things, but here he’s given us a slice of overheated hokum that seems largely designed to enforce every outmoded sexual stereotype in existence.

Adele (Kate Winslett) is a depressed mother, separated from her husband and trying to raise her teenage son, Henry (Gatlin Griffiths) to the best of her ability. On a shopping expedition, the two of them are confronted by Frank (Josh Brolin) a wounded criminal on the run and forced to take him back to their house, where he informs them he’s going to be staying for the long weekend of Labour Day. Just so there’s no misunderstanding, he starts by tying Adele to a chair, before cooking her a nice bowl of chilli and spoon-feeding it to her. Frank, it turns out, was in prison for the murder of his girlfriend (a sequence of events explained in clunky and at first, rather baffling flashbacks) but unlike most killers, he’s the extremely helpful sort and it isn’t long before he’s mending leaky taps, waxing the floors and instructing Adele in the fine art of making a peach cobbler. In fact, Frank is so patronising, it’s a wonder Adele doesn’t tell him to sling his hook, but since she seems to have the disposition of the average doormat, she’s soon falling in love with him and making plans to elope across the border to Canada. Meanwhile, she comes in handy for the occasional bit of sock darning and wound tending…trust me, I’m not making this up, it really is what happens.

The events are seen through the eyes of young Henry, who already seems to have a distinctly creepy attitude towards his Mom and there’s the definite feeling that he thinks he’s being in some way usurped by Frank. An early sequence where he gives Adele a card offering to be her ‘husband for a day’ was doubtless intended to be cute, but it’s actually rather worrying and scenes of him shopping for masturbatory material don’t help matters one bit.

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the film offers a conclusion of such saccharine sweetness, you imagine you can actually feel your teeth rotting. It’s always tricky when an admired director offers a less than satisfying film, but for Reitman, this is a disaster he’ll have to work very hard to expunge from my memory. Winslet and Brolin must be wishing they’d never signed their contracts.

1 star

Philip Caveney