"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

1 Post from February 2014


LABOR DAY – Directed by Jason Reitman

CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire.




Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 Chaplins.

For a movie boasting distinctive A-list talent, Labor Day sure is a bland affair.  Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day was written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman, who gave us such bright, quirky and moving films as Juno and Up in the Air, and it stars the incomparable Kate Winslet and the sympathetically virile Josh Brolin.  That’s a stellar line-up of filmmakers; however, their efforts in Labor Day are laborious, indeed. 

The story takes place in a small American town during the 1987 Labor Day weekend.  Adele (Kate Winslet) is a depressed single mother of a 13-year-old boy, Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith; the story is narrated by the adult Henry, voiced by Tobey Maguire).  While shopping, they run into an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), an alleged murderer.  Frank forces Adele to take him to her home so he can hide out for a few days while the police search the town for him.   During the course of the long weekend, Frank fixes Adele’s car, clears the house eaves of leaves, mops and waxes the floors, and prepares a variety of delicious meals, all this while ducking the eyes of neighbours and the police.  Adele and Frank fall in love, Frank becomes a father figure to Henry and they plan to flee to Canada.  Frank is the ideal man for a lovesick woman, albeit a convicted felon hiding from the law, but then again, nobody’s perfect.

Labor Day is a most unusual romantic drama.  It is highly improbable, which is not a fault as even the best romantic films thrive on and appeal to audiences for their quixotic plots, but Reitman’s movie meanders into the absurd and sinks into silliness.  For all the interesting dynamics of tension and danger juxtaposed with the humanity and kindness that Frank generates and devotes to Adele and Henry, the movie sinks under scenes of soppy banality.   

Labor Day features scenes wherein Frank demonstrates that he is one helluva heartfelt handy man around the house.  What are his motives?  Is he truly falling in love with Adele and trying to prove that a hunted murderer isn’t all that bad?  Is it a ploy to earn Adele’s trust so she’ll easily acquiesce to harboring a criminal and eventually help him escape town?  I was kept guessing as to how this would all unfold, but the subtle intrigue that nicely built was smothered by the pie scene.  Frank shows Adele what to do with a bunch of peaches about to go bad.  He makes peach pie and what follows is an excruciatingly long scene of Frank teaching Adele and Henry how to make a peach pie.  Director Reitman obviously intended this sequence as a metaphor for Frank’s nurturing qualities and suggestive of the sexual feelings baking between him and Adele.  This belabored sequence is so overripe that it sours the rest of the film.   All credibility is finally lost after a montage sequence that shows Frank, Adele and Henry playing at being a “normal family” together.  We see one shot of Frank strumming a guitar on the porch while Adele and Henry bask in the glow of his sensitivity, and this is the moment when Labor Day succumbs to kitsch. 

There are other problems with the movie, such as confused and clunky flashback sequences and Henry’s flaccidly realized sexual coming-of-age subplot.  On the plus side, Labor Day is beautifully photographed by Eric Steelberg, who lights the movie with a nostalgic, butterscotchy palette.  In addition, the music score by Rolfie Kent creates an ominous, dreamy and melancholy mood.

The performances are generally solid.  Kate Winslet can convey depression, anxiety and a wounded psyche in her sleep.  There is no doubt that her Adele feels authentic, but I found it a one-note performance that grew a little tiresome.  Gattlin Griffith as her son is touchingly sweet, although perhaps a little too milquetoast.  Josh Brolin is the powerhouse here – he commands the screen in every frame, but not with overt mannerisms.  He exudes danger, menace, longing, yearning and vulnerability with a presence that gracefully vibrates from a minimum of gestures.  Brolin reminds me of Humphrey Bogart who, once he broke out of his straight-ahead tough guy roles, played edgy, robust men tempered by great vulnerability and impaired by psychological tremors.  Brolin, from film to film, continues in the tradition Bogart.

For all its earnestness and pretensions, Labor Day is never boring; but, depending on your tolerance for this kind of material, which is like a nexus between a Harlequin romance and an abduction thriller, you’ll either fall for the absurd fantasy or strain your eyeballs from all their rolling in your head.