Reviewed by Biggest Loser on February 5th, 2014
Paramount Pictures presents a film by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman, based on the novel ‘Labor Day’ by Joyce Maynard
Starring: Gattlin Griffith, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin
Running Time: 111 minutes
Released: February 6th, 2014
An autopsy should be performed on Labor Day to see what went wrong. Even this early in director Jason Reitman's career, I never imagined that he would make a film this bad. All his films so far (Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air, Juno and Young Adult) have been sharply observed, funny and cynical looks at American culture. Adapting Joyce Maynard's novel takes Reitman into a new direction that he wasn't prepared for: an old fashioned weepie romance that never puts a foot right. In every scene Labor Day's overstretched story is unconvincing and overstated. Its situations are nothing but contrived and set against a backdrop of good old Americana it's hard to stomach that Reitman has recently given up on subversiveness and wit in favour of shallow gooeyness.
The film's central idea is that a woman isn't missing a person but simply love. Kate Winslet features as a depressed single mother in the 1980s, who is divorced and seems almost catatonic. The main character in the story though is her young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who needs a father as much as his mother needs a husband. Their house is rundown and overgrown with weeds. He attempts to fill in the social void by taking his mother places. One day when they are shopping together Henry meets Frank (Josh Brolin), who is bleeding and asks for his help. Henry takes him back to his mother and they agree to let the man go home with them. From news reports, it is apparent that Frank is a murderer on the run from the law. He takes Henry and Adele hostage inside the house over the Labor Day weekend but can't leave till the right train arrives. Rather than hurting them he teaches the boy skills around the house and begins a romance with Adele that lasts beyond their five days together. Through flashbacks we learn that both Adele and Frank suffered tragedies in their own families.
The premise is absurd. The credibility of the narrative hinges dangerously on the first scene where Adele and Henry meet Frank and the behavioural and psychological contrivances that Reitman employs to justify taking a stranger home are straight up implausible. On top of the brittle foundations of the characters, there is too little story and narrative direction. It shuffles between dull montages of Americanisms like playing baseball, fixing tires and baking pies. These scenes are wholesome, clean and frankly, boring. To compensate for the lack of conflict, there are least three set pieces where Reitman amateurishly tries to manufacture suspense by having neighbours and police visit the house. Not one of these episodes rings true. The lowest point of the film involves the introduction of a handicapped child. I found the cheap and artificial way that someone's disability is used to try and build tension to be nothing short of offensive.
The source material isn't strictly to blame. On top of producing and directing the film, Reitman also wrote the screenplay. He makes fatal decisions in the writing, like assuming his audience is unintelligent. One of the script's few potential sources of conflict is having the adults ask Henry to leave the house for errands, presumably so they can sleep together. In the very next scene another child character is brought in solely to explain that very same idea. As she explains that they might leave without him, the film cuts back to a scene of Adele and Frank in the car together. Typifying the same annoying over-explaining is also an intrusive voice over (supplied by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry) and loud music cues. An example is when Frank suggests the police won't be suspicious if they drive away pretending to be a family, the voice over chimes in straight after to say "a family", further telegraphing the emotion and sentimentality.
Kate Winslet's performance is one of the film's only qualities. Though short on dialogue, the physically drained look on her face feels true to the depressive state of her character. Yet Josh Brolin is miscast as a romantic lead and fails to show anything more than a simple brood. The decisions of their characters, like planning to move away together, seem inexplicable in such a short time span of knowing each other. As Henry, Gattlin Griffith lacks contrast and variation in his expressions. I wanted his character to have a stronger reaction to having this strange, bloody man staying in their house. Where can the story go if everyone is all too happy to go along with this? I've liked all of Jason Reitman's films until now but this was a long, frustrating film, particularly when it postures as being a story about truth and perspective but has few of these qualities. Hopefully this terrible film is a small blight on what should be an otherwise fruitful career for the director.