Labor Day (opening today) is not the massive celebrity-ensemble sequel to Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve, nor is it directed by Garry Marshall. Instead, it is a departure of sorts for writer/director Jason Reitman, the man who brought us Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, and who directed two Diablo Cody screenplays (Juno and Young Adult). With Labor Day, Reitman abandons sharply insightful comedies for a try at schmaltzy romantic drama.
His effort is mostly a miss. Adapting the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day perfectly epitomizes the sort of love story that can only be found in the movies.
Kate Winslet plays Adele, a disheveled and distant mother living in a small town in New Hampshire. But the story is really that of her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), whose point-of-view guides the film's narrative. Henry cares deeply for his mother, who is dealing with incredible depression after Henry's father (Clark Gregg) left. Adele rarely leaves the house, is socially awkward and is even beginning to show physical signs of mental sickness, with her shaking hands and all.
One particular Labor Day weekend, in the rarest of occasions when the two head out together to the local mart, Henry is confronted by a bleeding and brooding man named Frank (Josh Brolin). Frank quietly forces them to give him a ride and directs Adele to drive him back to her house.
Turns out that Frank is an escaped convict, who has injured his leg after escaping out of a second-story window. He decides to bunk with Adele and Henry for a few days to heal up and hopefully make a quiet get-away, while a massive police search envelops the area.
Interestingly enough, Labor Day is a deeply romantic (re: cheesy) love story, although its plot description might make you pause. You see, even though Frank was locked up for murder, he "never hurt anyone intentionally in his life." Through a series of flashbacks, his back story is slowly revealed to us. He immediately bonds with young Henry, who doesn't really have a man around to show him, well, how to be a man. Henry and Adele also seem to fit together like two parts of a missing puzzle.
Winslet and Brolin's dedicated performances save Labor Day from being awful, just barely. Theirs is one of those "fated" relationships, so depending on how strong your individual beliefs are in the idea of fate, Labor Day may provide mixed appeal. For me, there was way too much over-the-top hokiness to really buy into the story or the characters.
Although Frank is an escaped convict, he seems to have no problem fixing cars or playing catch in plain sight. Adele seems open to immediately falling in love with a man who just abducted her and her son. Apparently if you are good-looking and can cook, you are the perfect man, regardless of what you were in for.
There are several small and mid-sized cameos in the film, from Clark Gregg's unable-to-relate father to James Van Der Beek's prying Officer Treadwell, to the concerned neighbor Mr. Jervis, played by J.K. Simmons (who has appeared in all of Reitman's films). But if there was a stand-out minor role, it would be that of Maika Monroe, who plays a rebellious young girl who confronts Henry and forces him to look at the situation with Frank and his mom with an ounce of perspective.
The film could have benefited from the same advice, but a sense of perspective is not the only thing that is missing. The film's earlier scenes betray the rest of the film. The abduction scenes should have been scary and tense, but instead they were presented as if made for a Lifetime movie. Even when there is danger, nothing felt dangerous. This sets the movie off on the wrong foot: Instead of gradually building to the unexpected romance between Frank and Adele, we are tonally reminded right from the start that we are watching a movie. And of course, the best movies are the ones that attach us to reality, not something that feels artificially manufactured.
Labor Day isn't awful, it just felt like poor execution, made watchable by the performances of its talented cast. Then again, even the film's premise doesn't seem to quite lend itself to being taken seriously. It's a drama that is aware of its over-indulged dramatics, and revels in the thought.
Run Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Maika Monroe, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard
Written & Directed by Jason Reitman (Young Adult, Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You for Smoking)
Opens locally on Friday, Jan 31, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time