Jason Reitman is a writer/director behind several movies I’ve rather enjoyed. Juno was great, Thank You For Smoking was good. Up In the Air wasn’t my personal favorite, but it was still a quality movie. So color me shocked when upon watching Labor Day, a movie I’d quite been anticipating and one which Paramount Pictures saw fit to sneak in under the deadline for this year’s awards consideration, I discovered it’s pretty bad. Not like, “oops, they were trying to do something edgy or risky or technically impressive and it just didn’t quite work” bad. Just bad.
Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin headline Labor Day along with young actor Gattlin Griffith. Winslet and Griffith play a mother/son duo, Adele and Henry. Adele is a reclusive, painfully introverted divorcee who may be dealing with something slightly more sinister than psychological fallout from the divorce with Henry’s father (although this is never explored), whom Henry sees on Sundays. On one of their rare ventures to the store prior to Labor Day weekend, they happen into Frank (played by Brolin), a recently escaped convict who seizes upon their helplessness and social ineptitude to hide out until the next morning, when he plans to escape by train. Although Griffith isn’t as capable as several other young actors who have appeared this year in similar cusp-of-adulthood roles, he’s passable, and neither Winslet nor Brolin contribute to the film’s issues. They’re actually both rather strong, doing what they can with a limited script and even more limited roles.
No, the film’s failings begin with the fact that I didn’t buy into a single part of the plot other than the relationship between Adele and Henry which is presented in the film’s opening minutes (although even this passable setup is later ruined by some bad writing). The premise is that as Frank holds Adele and Henry captive, he and Adele fall for one another and try to begin new lives with one another. The trailers to the movie suggest that this takes place over time, which might have worked well, but it’s simply not the case. This may veer into minor spoiler territory, but subtracting the final ten to fifteen minutes of the movie, the entire film takes place over the course of four or five days: the Labor Day weekend which the title references.
We’ll return to the I-didn’t-buy-any-of-this complaint n a moment, but while on the point of Labor Day it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the setting. This movie suffers badly from a lack of setting, failing to position itself in any sort of definitive time or place beyond (maybe) a small New England town, betrayed by nothing more than a Red Sox cap that Brolin dons early in the film. There’s a gradual sense that this is probably sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s as we see cars, cans, and such that are definitively not from the modern day, but the entire movie (and this is where it ties back to the implausibility of nearly the entire plot) feels like it’s ripped from someone’s fantasy, where things like setting and realistic human interaction aren’t important.
So back to the plot. What I was building to (and I suppose I still am) is that this movie is an unlikely love story, which is fine in principle, but the falling in love takes place entirely in the span of a day and a half. Frank, as we in the audience might suspect, is not at all what Adele or Henry expect. Rather than the hard-bitten murderer the news makes him out to be, he’s a supremely capable nice guy who cooks, cleans, and fixes anything and everything while he’s holed up with them, teaching Henry everything from baking to baseball as he goes. Frank assures them that he’s never intentionally hurt anyone in his life, but neither of them once thinks to ask Frank to explain why he was convicted of murder. Adele and Henry might have escaped this felon on several occasions, but after a day’s audition as a replacement husband and father, they’re ready to welcome Frank into their lives on a permanent basis.
The rest of the plot follows similarly asinine logic, with significant details and plot holes just forgotten about in favor of moving on to the next piece of happenstance in this dream we’ve been dropped into. Henry happens into a new girl his own age named Rachel, herself a child of divorce, who supposedly sows the seeds of doubt in Henry’s mind about whether his mother will still love him now that she has Frank to keep her warm at night. (Oh yeah, and there’s a weird thematic focus on sex that’s woven throughout the entire narrative, but is never significant in any way. ) It’s a move entirely designed to force in dramatic tension between Henry and Adele that has no place. There’s no way Henry pays so much attention to a girl he barely knows when his mother is the person he’s closest to in the entire world. Rachel crops up from time to time when it’s plot convenient, but her character is so weak that even if Elena Kampouris, the unlucky young actress chosen to play her, was outstanding there wouldn’t be much redeeming the character. The two scenes where Rachel is alone with Henry are easily the weakest in a movie full of laughably weak scenes.
I could go into more examples, including a discussion of some weird flashbacks to both Frank’s and Adele’s younger years and some visions which hint at Henry’s sexual awakening, but there’s really no point. The movie repeatedly introduces entirely false tension built on the relationships of fake characters moving robotically through a plot that makes no logical sense but is careful to tie itself up into a pretty little bow by the end.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
I’m still in shock that this is a movie written and directed by Jason Reitman. There is such little evidence of good storytelling here, I made it through the entire film only because I was reviewing it and though it bad professional form to quit halfway. Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet are fine in their roles, but their characters are extraordinarily limited and don’t feel like real people in the least. This reeks of an attempted cash-in trying to parrot the success of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, and it’s a movie that utterly fails to deliver anything that feels real.