Word from Telluride: Jason Reitman's earnest 'Labor Day' gets split reactions

Director Jason Reitman poses on the red carpet at a live stage reading of the screenplay for "American Beauty" at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival September 6, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

By Chris Willman LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - Speaking before the world premiere of his new film "Labor Day" at the Telluride Film Festival's opening screening, writer-director Jason Reitman felt inclined to point out that certain ironies shouldn't be lost. "This is going to be a very tricky transition for you," he told the audience at a patrons-only showing Friday afternoon. "You're going to have to somehow step out of this beautiful town on Labor Day weekend, and walk into beautiful town ... on Labor Day weekend." Actually, most of "Labor Day" doesn't take place in the New England town in question, but inside a home where a nervous divorcee played by Kate Winslet plays host — first unwillingly, then quite voluntarily — to Josh Brolin's escaped convict. There are only a handful of laughs in Reitman's romantic drama, a radical departure from the filmmaker's usual semi-satirical form; "Labor Day" is as earnest and straightforward as his previous film, "Young Adult," was crooked. Certainly he and Paramount are hoping "Labor Day" is a return to form when it comes to tempting the Academy, and maybe a return to Telluride could be his lucky charm - "Juno" and "Up in the Air" both premiered there, while the un-nominated "Young Adult" didn't. Unlike the film that filled the charmed opening slot last year, "Argo," which left the crowd enraptured, split opinions about "Labor Day" were immediately apparent on the gondola rides down from the mountaintop premiere. Oscar blogger chatter was also mixed, with Sasha Stone of Awards Daily calling it "sweet and sad ... Reitman's best" while Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells said, "It's not a catastrophe but it felt to me like a sensitive humanist misfire." While Ben Affleck was the champion of the day when he rode into town last year to premiere "Argo," Reitman had to cede that incoming-hero position this year to Robert Redford, who brought his J.C. Chandor-directed starring vehicle "All is Lost" (previously hailed at Cannes) while receiving the first tribute of the festival. "We love Sundance!" blurted festival co-director Julie Huntsinger at the start of Redford's tribute, just in case there was the slightest hint of inter-festival rivalry. "We premiered J.C. Chandor's film ‘Margin Call' at our festival in Utah," said Redford. "Then when he came to me in New York and said that he had written this piece with me in mind and there was no dialogue, the first thing that struck me and got me excited was that there was no dialogue. "Of all the people we've supported over the years at Sundance, either in our labs or at our festival, I thought it was ironic that no one ever asked me to be in a film. J.C. was the first one who'd come through our process that asked me to be in a film." Having said that, Redford may need a bodyguard at the Sundance awards ceremony next January. If tradition counts for anything, Redford — who's being strongly touted for a best actor nomination — and Chandor can take heart in remembering how well things went for the last almost entirely speech-free film to play Telluride. That would be "The Artist." The Coen brothers, who will receive a Telluride tribute Saturday along with their usual music supervisor T Bone Burnett, also brought a Cannes favorite for a North American premiere Friday. At a Q&A following the first screening of "Inside Llewyn Davis," Ethan Coen, famous for being the quieter of the siblings, finally felt compelled to speak up when asked about the cat that darts in and out of much of the film's narrative. Coen shook his head balefully for about 30 seconds before explaining: "Just ... don't ... work with a cat. We should have known better, because we'd done it before on ‘The Ladykillers,' where we did a lot of stuff with cats. "It's like we didn't learn our lesson ... I think in some weird way, at a certain point we realized we were writing a movie with no plot where nothing happens, so we thought, ‘Let's put a cat in it.'" Reaction to the Coens' already-lauded look at an unlucky folksinger in 1961 was as positive as expected, although there was a bit of deflation for a few laugh-seeking passholders who quickly realized that "Llewyn" would be more along the sober lines of their "A Serious Man" than a period musical spoof like Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind." The fictional folkie schlub who serves as the film's title character comes in for as much existential punishment as the God-addled protagonist of "Serious Man" did — something star Oscar Isaac laid it down to the Coens' desire to zero in on a very particular aspect of the autobiography of Dave van Ronk, the inspiration for the film's anti-hero. Van Ronk "would talk about how amazing the time was in Washington Square Park and all this stuff, and then there'd be maybe a paragraph or two about this shitty trip he took to Chicago; then he'd get back to the really interesting parts," said Isaac. "And that's the part they decided to focus it on - that shitty trip to Chicago." For his part, at least, Isaac may be due to join Redford on a not-so-shitty trip to the Oscars' red carpet. Telluride's opening night capped off with a near-midnight world premiere of "Under the Skin," a science-fiction fable helmed by Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast") with Scarlett Johansson as an otherworldly serial killer of sorts, ensnaring unwitting men in the Scottish highlands for alien abductions. Its somber tone and elliptical narrative won't exactly ensnare the average "Avengers" fan, and there was some bleary-eyed "what the hell was that?" grumbling as the film let out close to 2 a.m., but the pic could get some traction with more demanding sci-fi cultists.