Before “Labor Day” even started, the buzz amongst the moviegoers was building. Even though not many of us knew too much regarding the film’s plot, other than a loose synopsis, the filmmakers involved in the project had a pretty solid track record.
First off, the director/screenwriter of the film was Jason Reitman. Yes, that’s the same Jason Reitman who has received two Academy Award nominations for Best Director in his brief, yet illustrious career thus far — one for “Juno” and one for “Up in the Air.” He has also been credited with two more Oscar nominations for “Up in the Air” as well — one for “Best Picture” and one that was shared with Sheldon Turner for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Oh yeah, before I forget, he also wrote and directed the underrated “Thank You for Smoking“ as well as going behind the camera for two episodes of The Office. So, I guess it’s safe to say that Reitman’s past achievements have earned him quite a stellar reputation with critics and audiences alike.
Best Actress/Supporting Actress Oscar nominee herself with one win) and Josh Brolin (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “Milk”). It also features a relatively unknown young actor named Gattlin Griffith in his first major role. The last time Reitman gave a relatively unknown young actor a chance was back in 2007 when he cast Ellen Page in a starring role in “Juno” — and we all know how that ended up.
So, basically, all the celestial bodies seemed to be aligned for “Labor Day” to become another hit for Reitman. Well, I guess we were all reading our astronomy charts wrong for this one.
The story (based on Joyce Maynard’s novel) focuses on 13 year-old Henry (Griffith) and his mother Adele (Winslet), whose lives are turned upside down due to a chance encounter in a grocery store with convict Frank (Brolin), who has just busted out of jail. Well, technically, he just ran away from a hospital while serving a jail sentence for MURDER. So, Frank is actually a convicted MURDERER who escaped from prison.
Now that we have that cleared up, let’s get back to the story. But, before we get back to Henry running into a bloodied and shady-looking Frank while his mother shops for groceries, let’s get some back story, shall we.
Henry comes from a broken home, although Henry’s father Gerald (Clark Gregg — who plays Agent Coulson in “The Avengers” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) is adjusting to life much better than his ex-wife is. Gerald has remarried and started a new family, while Henry lives with Adele — who has become a shut-in/recluse/borderline agoraphobic. In a voiceover (the film has an older Henry providing narration — courtesy of Tobey Maguire), the narrator describes Adele by saying, “I could sense her loneliness before I even really had a name for it.”
In other words, Adele has been lonely and depressed ever since her divorce. But, Henry tries as hard as he possibly can to keep love and joy in his heartsick mother’s life. He even goes so far as to present her with a self-made coupon book entitled “Husband For a Day,” which includes backrubs, chores, and various other “honey-dos” to help her around the house. Even with Henry’s coupon book, the house they live might be vast, but it’s rundown, empty and experiencing the neglect that homes go through when a significant other isn’t there to pitch-in. Oh, if only there was a man around the house to help out… a ruff, rugged, good-looking man with a checkered past, but a big heart.
Okay, well, let’s get back to this now seemingly convenient encounter with the escaped jailbird.
So, Henry meets Frank in the supermarket and Frank convinces Henry to ask his mom if she’ll give him a ride. Of course, Adele first says no. However, Frank stares at her, while threateningly stating, “This needs to happen.” So, reluctantly, she agrees to do it.
I must say up to this point the film was actually quite thrilling. Composer Rolfe Kent’s score kept up the tension with violin stabs, while Reitman’s direction keeps the audience at a distance, as if to keep them out of harm’s way. That being said, this feeling doesn’t last very long and the film goes all downhill from here. In fact, it’s speeding towards a cheesy, fast-paced, overly-intimate ending.
Adele and Henry bring Frank back to the house and Frank immediately starts acting like an escaped convict should. He tells the two that he’s in charge, but in a nice way. He ties up Adele, but in a nice way. Then he tells Henry to help him cook dinner, but in a nice way, and they make chili together. Aww, how sweet. What a nice guy… I mean, for a convicted murderer on the run from the law. Well, at least that’s what Adele starts to think about good ol’ Frank.
Even when Frank grabs her by the neck and hold her hostage when a neighbor (played by frequent Reitman collaborator J.K. Simmons) comes to the door to warn Henry and his mom about the escaped convict that’s on the loose, Adele manages to transform the close contact into an intimate experience. Thus, the romance starts to blossom.
The film is a mish-mash of ideas that all seem to happen waaaay tooo quickly. I know that neither Frank nor Adele have had intimate contact with the opposite sex in a loooong time. You
know, with Adele being a lonely spinster and Frank being a lonely prisoner. But, that’s no excuse for a relationship to blossom in record-breaking time. I mean, all Frank has to do is fix-up a few loose boards, wax a few floors, and cook a few meals and Adele automatically forgets that this dude is a MURDERER THAT’S ESCAPED FROM JAIL! I’m pretty sure that not too many people would fall in love during this sort of situation. But, Adele seems to take Stockholm Syndrome into a whole new realm of its own.
The film ends up treading dangerously close to Nicholas Sparks territory. In fact, if didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought that this film was just another romantic film in order to please the ladies and make their men feel woefully inadequate. No, I’m not bitter, but I’m just not a huge fan of the romantic drama, which is EXACTLY what this movie is.
And therein lies the biggest disappointment of all — the fact that Jason Reitman would agree to direct this kind of film.
It has none of the quirky sense of humor that “Juno” had. Nor does it have the creative spark that “Up in the Air” had either. Also, it has none of the underlying layer of satirical genius or social commentary that “Thank You For Smoking” had. And even though “Young Adult” isn’t my favorite film, it’s ten times more interesting than “Labor Day” is.
What I’m trying to say is: It just doesn’t seem like a typical Jason Reitman film.
The performances are the only thing that saves “Labor Day” from going full-on cheese. Winslet, who has established herself as one of the best actresses of her generation (if not all-time) gives the role the subtlety it needs to keep from feeling forced. Even when Adele is experiencing groan-inducing, lustful feelings towards the dark and brooding Frank, Winslet manages to hold back just a little bit. It’s as if she knows the audience will find it hard to believe that she would expereince these feelings this fast.
Brolin also delivers and plays Frank perfectly. He manages to capture the attention of Adele without even trying and pulls off the same trick with moviegoers. As an actor, Brolin carries with him the same quality that film stars from the 1950s, 60s and 70s did. He’s coarse and manly, but never overly tough. He seems like he’s the kind of guy that looks like he’d be easy to beat up, but then turns out to be the true ass-kicker. I don’t know, ever since I saw Brolin in “No Country for Old Men” I have felt this way about his on-screen abilities. He’s like an action star without an action film, if that makes any sense. He uses this to his advantage to play Frank, although (like I stated before) neither the story nor Reitman’s script gives Brolin or Winslet too much to work with.
Some of the scenes are brimming with so much cheese, I was waiting for a “Sponsored by Velveeta” to scroll across the bottom of the screen. Sorry, that last sentence was pretty cheesy in
itself. Anyway, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see the “peach pie” scene. Without giving too much away, just think “Ghost,” but with sticky peaches instead of sticky clay. Is that “Unchained Melody” I hear in the background?
The story eventually divulges Frank’s shady past and why he’s in jail, as well as trying to highlight Henry’s maturation. I fail to see how watching your mom fall in love with a culinary criminal would force you to grow up in only five days, but apparently not having a man around the house and living with a borderline nutty mom seems to have affected Henry in some, crazy way. What a wuss. Just go out and throw some rocks through your neighbor’s window, Henry. You’ll feel better.
The whole sticky affair comes to an end the exact way you think it will and if that’s a “spoiler” in and of itself then I apologize. It’s just that this uninspired hybrid of every “chick flick” I’ve seen in the last ten years is NOT what I expected as I sat down to watch the next endeavor from a talented auteur like Reitman.
Sorry Jason, at least for me, your buzz is now officially over.