Jason Reitman had been one of my favorite contemporary directors up until just a couple of years ago, delivering such unforgettable films as “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air.” Sadly his career took a slight dive when he released the bland “Young Adult,” a film that was missing his usual eccentric, yet lovable, central character, replacing them with a character that you’d find nearly impossible to enjoy. With this stumble in the past, it was hoped that he would quickly get back on his feet and jump back up to the level of film we know he’s capable of producing. With “Labor Day,” he diverges from everything we’ve ever known him for, and while change can be a good thing for some, unfortunately it doesn’t help Reitman crawl out of the slump his career has taken.
The film focuses on a separated mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Adele hasn’t adjusted particularly well to life without a husband, so Henry helps her out quite a lot. One day, while they’re out for supplies, an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), offers himself a ride with them and invites himself into their home. At first, the situation is a little tense because Adele and Henry aren’t sure what to make of Frank, but they soon find that he’s pretty gentle. Over the next few days, he fixes a few things around the house and even shows them how to do a little cooking. Meanwhile, Adele and Frank grow closer and closer, leading to a very unlikely relationship.
One of the biggest things holding back “Labor Day” is its lack of believability. We’re expected to buy into the fact that a relationship is blossoming out of the blue between a lonely woman and a man convicted of murder. The interesting thing is, she never bothers to ask about the circumstances of his crime, or anything about his past for that matter. Sure, we can just leave it up to how desperate she is for a man, but this is stretching it quite a bit. Even for someone who’s desperate for companionship, they would certainly ask what happened in their potential partner’s past, especially if a murder conviction is involved.
But let’s say you’re able to achieve a state of disbelief. The other issue the film faces is that it’s smothered in melodrama. While we’re used to seeing a little drama in Reitman’s films, it’s pretty clear that his previous works were mainly comedy, so it’s conceivable that he would want to try something new. However, you don’t want to go about drowning your story in thickly-laid drama that will suffocate the audience. That’s not saying that Reitman needs comedy to help relieve his narrative, just that he shouldn’t be ending up with a product that comes off as a cheesy paperback romance.
There are parts of the film that work pretty well, particularly in the second half. After a very subdued first half that feels more like “This Old House” and “Baking with Frank,” we do get a few tense moments where we’re not sure how things are going to work out. Some of the performances are also worth mentioning. Winslet does a fine job as a broken woman who’s looking for some stability in her life and Griffith is commendable for his role as the teen trying to cope with this bizarre situation. Brolin’s presence here is very strange as he plays the character in such a low-key fashion that you almost feel as though he doesn’t want to be there. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t leave much of a mark.
As I’ve mentioned before in reviews of Reitman’s previous work, he tends to create characters that we get attached to pretty quickly, and even eventually come to like. With Reitman going in this completely new direction, I was unsure of how long it would take, but even by the end of the film, I discovered that I never really found myself caring about any of them. Nick Naylor, Juno MacGuff, and Ryan Bingham were characters that we really got to know and explore. No one here came even remotely close to that level of development, and so we’re left with a slight feeling of indifference towards them instead of being engaged with their situation.
Again, change is not necessarily a bad thing, but at this rate, I’m beginning to hope that Reitman will go back to what made him so good in the first place (comedy-dramas with a great cast of characters). I’m beginning to miss having a great film of his to look forward to every couple of years. Hopefully, whatever he should choose to do next, he’ll take his time to make sure all the necessary elements are in place to deliver something as uniquely memorable as his older work, instead of something along the lines of his recent films, which slip from the mind shortly after they’re over. 2.5/4 stars.
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