Labor Day (United States, 2014)

January 31, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Labor Day Poster

"Labor" isn't just a word in the title of Jason Reitman's new film, it's a description of what it feels like to sit through the movie. Messy, poorly focused, and overflowing with artifice, Labor Day is an unpleasant surprise to come from the pen of the man who helmed Up in the Air and Juno. The wit of Reitman's previous outings is entirely absent and it's not clear what he wants Labor Day to be, although the result ends up skewing disappointingly close to something out of the imagination of Nicholas Sparks. The movie contains elements of a thriller, a coming-of-age tale, and an overcooked love story but, although it frequently tries to re-invent itself, Labor Day never successfully latches onto anything.

The film, which is set in a 1987 that seems more like 1977, begins with promise. The opening scenes establish an unsettling atmosphere, enhanced by Rolfe Kent's discordant score. For a while, Labor Day seems headed into psychological thriller territory as we wonder about the motives of the mysterious stranger played by Josh Brolin. Sadly, it soon becomes apparent that Brolin's Frank is precisely what he appears to be: an escaped convict with a heart of gold. He's not hiding any secrets. Maybe that represents a "twist" of sorts but it's also a letdown. Once we figure out that there's nothing ominous about Frank, we can feel comfortable about his getting close to Adele (Kate Winslet). They're both lonely, lost souls who find comfort in each other's arms. As I said, Nicholas Sparks territory.

Adele lives alone with her 13-year old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). She's afflicted with depression and agoraphobia. On a rare day when she leaves her home to go shopping, she and Henry encounter Frank, who is bleeding and in obvious need of help. Adele initially refuses but changes her mind when Frank makes a thinly veiled threat to Henry's life. The three return to Adele and Henry's house where they learn that Frank is an escaped prisoner and the object of a huge manhunt. As he hides out from the police, he and Adele bond while Henry ponders what this means for his future.

As ex-cons go, Frank is a gem. He's a master chef - I suppose the peach pie baking scene is intended to mimic the clay molding in Ghost - and a whiz at fixing broken things. He changes the oil in the car, stops the door from squeaking, teaches Henry the basics of baseball, and generally makes himself useful. He also recovers pretty quickly from the injuries sustained in his flight from the police. He's pretty much the perfect guy - kind, considerate, and never inclined toward violence. We keep expecting the fa├žade to crack but it never does.

The film's point-of-view is confused. Although events are presented through Henry's eyes (with Tobey Maguire providing the voiceover narration), the movie inexplicably throws in flashbacks detailing Frank's sad past and occasionally incorporates scenes where Henry isn't present. Much of Labor Day is just slow and plodding but there are a couple of subplots that stand out as particularly awful. One involves a "wild" girl who catches Henry's eye and the other features an overly helpful cop.

Coming-of-age tales can be fertile ground but Reitman fails to do much with Henry's character. We're provided with images that indicate he's starting to have sexual thoughts. There are some Oedipal moments although these are glossed over quickly enough to retain the PG-13 rating. Part of the problem is that actor Gattlin Griffith isn't suited for the role; his performance is wooden and unconvincing. Despite supposedly providing the film's emotional core, Henry often blends into the background. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are fine but both stay within their comfort zones.

It's always disheartening to sit through a mediocre movie but when that production comes from someone with a proven track record, it's doubly disappointing. Reitman has made some fine movies; this is easily his worst. Labor Day is awkward and unsure and, while one could cite the source material, Joyce Maynard's novel, Reitman's treatment fails every litmus test of a satisfying adaptation. Initial marketing campaigns positioned Labor Day as a possible Oscar contender but, following tepid early screenings, Paramount quietly moved the film into the January graveyard, which is an appropriate place for it to rest in peace.

Labor Day (United States, 2014)

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg
Screenplay: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: Rolfe Kent
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2014-01-31
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1