Director Jason Reitman broke through in the business with an impressive trio of sharply written stories about colourful, independent characters – Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air. Although these first features will ensure Reitman keeps a good batting average as he moves forward, the director is starting to scale back into less inspired choices. Case in point: Labor Day, a dopey and implausible drama about a woman’s Stockholm syndrome that is one third intimate Alice Munro and two thirds a Nicholas Sparks treacle.
It is perplexing to think about what Reitman saw in Joyce Maynard’s best-selling piece of domestic sap, or what Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin found on his page that drew them into these incompletely drawn characters. Although Labor Day is made with skill and performed with full-bodied conviction, the film features one of the strangest big-screen romances in recent memory, one overwrought and illogical even by a typical melodrama’s standards.
It is 1987 in the quaint, chirping cottage town of Halton Hills, New Hampshire on the most sweltering (and final) weekend of summer. Instead of swimming in the sea or playing sports outside, nervous, budding 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) stays home to tend to his agoraphobic mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). Henry tells us – as narrated by Tobey Maguire, who plays the character in adult form – that he is as lonely as his mother, who rarely leaves her bed. After splitting from her gregarious husband, Gerald (Clark Gregg) and without love in her life, Adele is slowly drowning in her own misery and sleeping through the summer.
Once a month, however, Adele and Henry go into town together to stock up on food and clothing. On the Friday before the Labor Day weekend, Henry bumps into a bleeding man, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), in a department store. Frank asks Henry if he can have a ride to his home so he can take shelter. It turns out that Frank just escaped from prison, where he served a murder sentence, and the police are scouting the area. Henry and Adele take this news with relative ease and are not curious about finding out more about Frank’s criminal past.
Instead of leaving Henry and Adele and hopping on a nearby train, Frank finds something pure and wholesome in Adele and decides to stay over the weekend. Slowly, these two souls who are opposites in form – he stands tall and grips firmly, while her hands tremble atop just about everything she touches – fall in love. Both are lonely souls with tortured pasts and neither has had a sexual connection in a long time. This puzzles Henry, who is going through his own pubescent changes and doesn’t know how to react to the romance blossoming around him.
However, the quick rise of Frank and Adele’s body temperatures negates a gaping hole in Labor Day’s story. Adele is so drawn to the stoic, resourceful Frank that she does not have any concern for the grueling events of his life that made him a prisoner so many years before. Even though she feels like a prisoner too, it is a big leap to expect an audience to believe that Adele wants Frank to become such an intimate part of her life so quickly, without questioning the sordid details of his past.
Reitman plays much of Labor Day straight, even though the character relationships are strange and slightly off-kilter. As the pubescent son navigating his own sexual awareness, Griffith is a quiet but alert screen presence. His scenes with Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), a young girl who catches his eye and gets him hot and bothered, are gloriously awkward – unlike the rest of Labor Day, which is stilted and frustrating in a different way.
Brolin and Winslet find roots of compassion in their characters that makes us invested in their romance; however, as they become more entangled with each other, the lack of interest in exploring the darker details of Frank’s life becomes distracting and unconvincing. One can understand Adele’s hunger for another human’s touch, but her insistence on running away with Frank to start a new life feels indulgent and illogical. One can even faintly see the film’s poster – a muscled Brolin gripping Winslet, as her glazed face slackens – on the cover of an overwrought romance novel, which the film closely resembles. Reitman is quickly moving from Billy Wilder-like pep to Douglas Sirk poignancy, but without the weight to support the latter’s full-bodied melodramas.
Labor Day is made with care and Reitman is still an adept director, even if his writing lacks the urgency it once had. An icy, unnerving score from Rolfe Kent adds an aura of suspense and uncertainty to the film’s elliptic flashbacks sequences, while the detail in bringing late-1980s era advertisements and product logos is impressive. There is a sense of time and place in this small, Northeastern town.
Unfortunately, Reitman’s screenplay moves between stinging suspense and clumsy melodrama. A few metaphors that likely worked more poetically on the page – Frank, Adele and Henry spend an afternoon making a peach pie, while the convict refers to the crust on top as the “roof on this house” – are obvious on the screen. Another frustrating character detail: despite his face pasted on signs around Halton Hills, Frank is frequently outside helping out with household chores or talking with the characters on the porch in broad daylight. For a man desperate to evade police, he makes his presence in town well known.
Labor Day turns distressingly sappy and silly as the characters refuse to address the elephant in the room (i.e., Frank’s murderous past). Even though the central romance is unconvincing, Winslet and Brolin bring unspoken dimensions to their characters through brief stares and lingering touches that say more than some of the gooey dialogue they recite to each other toward the film’s end. One wishes the characters were as rich as the performances from a superb cast. As close as the actors come to rescuing this dopey melodrama, which closes with one of the most glaringly tacked on epilogues this reviewer can remember, Labor Day suffers too much from contrived plotting and silly character motivations.
Jason Reitman's Labor Day is a well-acted but dopey melodrama that becomes more contrived and illogical as the romance steams up - ultimately ruining any chances of a positive viewing experience.