Labor Day and Tim's Vermeer

Kate Winslet in a slushy romance, Penn and Teller on the trail of an artistic mystery.


Labor Day
Photo by Dale Robinette, courtesy Paramount Pictures

The world has changed even more than you might have been aware since the 1950s, when Dinah Shore scored a hit with a song called "It's So Nice To Have a Man Around the House." Now, in Jason Reitman's oddly limp new film Labor Day, the man is an escaped murderer, and the woman whose house he's around is a basket-case divorcée who is willing to overlook this considerable shortcoming in exchange for some help with the household chores.

The movie is thoroughly perplexing. Reitman's four previous films—especially Juno, Up in the Air and the underrated Young Adult—were heartfelt and funny. Their characters—a pregnant teen, a corporate terminator and an egomaniacal writer—had fresh edges and outlooks. The characters in Labor Day are walking implausibilities, possibly from another planet; the movie is careful to avoid amusing us in any way, and it has the soft, gooey heart of a Hallmark valentine.

It's a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1987, and told from the perspective of 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), who lives in a poky New England town with his sad mom Adele (Kate Winslet), who's still torn up about the grim circumstances surrounding her marital abandonment. Adele spends a lot of her time staring into space. After Henry persuades her to leave the house for a change to do some shopping, they encounter a bleeding man in a clothing store. His name is Frank (Josh Brolin), and he suggests—well, insists, really—that they take him home with them so he can hide out for a while. Adele figures, okay.

Mom and son are initially wary of their scruffy guest, until he explains that the murder for which he was imprisoned was actually a bum rap—he's really a nice guy. Soon he's beavering around the place mopping floors, tuning up the car, surprising his hosts with biscuits for breakfast. He spends quality baseball time with Henry and, before long, much-appreciated bunk time with Adele. They're becoming, like, a family.

Problems arise when neighbors start dropping by, and a snoopy cop (James Van Der Beek) takes an interest in whatever it is that's going on. Reitman works up some tension in a few scenes—especially one involving a speech-impaired kid in a wheelchair. But then there's another scene—a readymade kitsch classic—in which Frank is teaching Adele how to make a peach pie, and we see their hands erotically entwined in a bowl full of fruity mush. At this point, the movie loses all claim to anyone's serious attention.

Gattlin Griffith's Henry is a persuasively sensitive observer of all this. (Toward the end, we see that he's grown up to become Tobey Maguire, who in turn has become…well, you won't believe you're being asked to believe it.) And while Brolin, with his tight white t-shirts and studly baritone, adds muscular presence to this otherwise droopy film, Winslet's Adele is such a complete dishrag we begin to wish someone would give her a good shake to bring her to her senses. But then, when she and Frank decide to make a run for Canada to start a new life (how hard could that be?), it seems as if the woman most in need of shaking might have been Joyce Maynard, on whose 2009 novel the picture is based.

The movie concludes on a note of shameless heart-twanging. However, if nothing else, this at least gives us something, at last, to laugh at.

Tim's Vermeer

Are the great paintings of the Renaissance masters really all that great, or is their visual magic an illusion? Could the illusion be part of their greatness? In Tim's Vermeer, a new documentary by the modern-day illusionists Penn and Teller (Teller directed, Penn narrates), these questions are pursued in an unexpectedly compelling manner. The movie contemplates a mystery and tells the tale of one man's obsession with solving it. It's a quietly mesmerizing film.

Vermeer's "The Music Lesson"

Tim Jenison, the Tim of the title, is a San Antonio-based inventor and video engineer who made a fortune with digital imaging technology like Video Toaster and Lightwave 3D. Not a painter himself, he was nevertheless fascinated by a 2001 book by David Hockney—who of course is—which argued that the phenomenal realism of Renaissance painting had to have been assisted by use of a camera obscura, a darkened box fitted with an aperture, lens and mirror that enabled the primitive projection of a color image onto, say, a canvas.

Jenison set out to test this theory by reproducing "The Music Lesson," an iconic masterpiece by the 17th-Century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. The painting's uncanny precision—its pearlescent natural light and near-microscopic detail (a draped rug in the foreground is rendered thread-by-thread)—seems to be a feat of monumental artistry. Or was some sort of projection involved? Equipped with substantial time and money, and observed by his old friends Penn and Teller, Jennison endeavors to find out—for no other reason than that he wants to know.

In a San Antonio warehouse, he uses 3D computer modeling to determine the exact dimensions of the room in the painting. Then he sets about recreating it, using only materials that would have been available to Vermeer. He hauls in lumber and builds the furniture seen in the painting by hand (when his woodworking lathe proves inadequate for turning out an ornate table leg, he cuts the machine in half). He constructs the distinctive windows through which Vermeer's sublime light flows. He makes his own glass, grinds his own lens, creates the special pigments necessary to achieve Vermeer's colors. To represent the two figures in the painting, he brings in models and clamps their heads and hands in place to prevent any movement. With the completed scene projected as an image before him, he begins painting, minute stroke by minute stroke. It is a supremely arduous process.

The movie has a lilting serenity, from the low-key commentary (English architecture professor Philip Steadman and Hockney himself also weigh in) to composer Conrad Pope's gentle pizzicato score. Although Jenison says at one point that much of his project is not unlike watching paint dry, it never is—we're caught up in his singular determination.

At the end of five years, Jenison has succeeded in creating his own version of "The Music Lesson." It is a remarkable achievement. (At one moment, addressing the camera, he briefly bows his head to wipe away tears.) But still we realize that, while Jenison has recreated this great painting, it was Vermeer who actually created it—who composed its figures, its colors and its exquisite light. The movie illuminates the artist's original achievement, and his mastery remains undimmed.