“Labor Day” and “That Awkward Moment”: A Reminder That Terrible Movies Are Still Out There

Oscar season spoils us. The major Hollywood studio pack the fall release schedule with thoughtful movies directed by skillful filmmakers and brimming with exceptional performances from Hollywood’s acting elite. 12 Years a Slave! Gravity! Nebraska! Her! American Hustle! Movies are so awesome.

Then awards season really kicks into gear, right around the time when everyone and their mother is reaching back into their memory banks to fill out their Top 10 lists summarizing the year in film. We’re reminded of all the great experiences we had at the movies even before fall began. Remember when we cried at the sight of Oscar Grant cowering in front of a policeman at the end of Fruitvale Station? Remember when Cate Blanchett tore into her role as an entitled woman stripped of her privilege in Blue Jasmine? Remember when Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley reminded us that teen romance isn’t all sweaty vampires and broody mopes in The Spectacular Now? Movies are so great.

And they are. But the reality of Hollywood’s long-standing business strategy makes it very difficult for us to maintain that belief in the first few months of every new year. With their Oscar hopes secured, the studios take out the trash, dumping their most impressively unambitious projects of the year into the trash receptacle known as January.

That’s how we ended up with That Awkward Moment and Labor Day, both of which opened last weekend. They’re not entirely unrelated. Both are toplined by actors whose resumes suggest far better than the material they’ve been given in these stinkers. I can take or leave Zac Efron, but Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan are two of the most promising young actors of their generation, and seeing them in That Awkward Moment is depressing. The movie is writer-director Tom Gormican’s painfully contrived attempt to reinvent the date movie as a vehicle for dudes in all of their dude glory, as if that’s something we really needed in a moviegoing environment dominated by iron men, men of steel and men whose hammers are heavier than both.

When That Awkward Moment began in media res, with Efron’s tiresome voiceover teasing a story that culminates with his character freezing on a park bench in the middle of the night, I threw my hands up in frustration. (Or I would have, had I not been sitting in a crowded movie theater. That’s rude, after all.) The movie’s biggest mistake is assuming that I would care about the three slackers at its center. The women in the movie have been programmed to succumb to the men’s charms, a cliched premise that grows even more tiresome once it’s clear that these men don’t have any. Even Miles Teller’s boyish enthusiasm and exceptional timing can’t save this limp excuse for a comedy. (Given the number of brutally unfunny penis jokes, “limp” is an apt adjective.)

Labor Day

Labor Day also had promise. Jason Reitman is one of the most acclaimed directors of the last few years, much rewarded for Up in the Air and Juno at the Oscars and praised even for his less successful efforts Thank You for Smoking and Young Adult. But Labor Day tarnishes Reitman’s solid resume with a puddle of sopping wet histrionics that never coalesce into a satisfying, believable story of unconventional romance or burgeoning sexual desire. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin try their best, but the script lets them down with thuddingly unsubtle dialogue and a repetitive narrative structure that tested my patience. (Yes, I know something bad happened in the bathtub – just tell me what it was and move on.)

My point is not just that these movies are bad – that’s nearly self-evident. Rather, I’d love to live in a world in which great movies are as likely to come out in January or February as they are in November and December. The obsessive focus on the Oscars and the surrounding awards season imposes rigorous seasonal delineations that have outgrown their usefulness. It’s almost exhausting to sit through good movie after good movie in December while knowing that January and February will be a wasteland by comparison. My plea to Hollywood studios and their scheduling departments: buck the trend. Release a really good movie in January and February. (To be fair, Lone Survivor is a pretty good movie and a pretty big hit. But it’s an anomaly, technically a holdover for 2013 and eligible for this year’s Oscars.)

Better yet, Hollywood: stop supporting movies as terrible as That Awkward Moment and Labor Day. We deserve better.

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