Labor Day (2013) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
Running Time: 111 min.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, Brooke Smith, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Alexie Gilmore, Maika Monroe, Dylan Minnette, Micah Fowler
Small role: J.K. Simmons
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenplay: Jason Reitman (based on the book by Joyce Maynard)

Review published February 4, 2014

Labor Day is written and directed by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, that sees him branching out from his customary smart-alecky comedy-dramas into the realm of coming-of-age drama and sultry romance. Unfortunately, by eschewing the strengths that put Reitman's name on the map as a young filmmaker of note, he finds himself struggling mightily to turn this mix of Harlequin romance and Nicholas Sparks' sudser into a compelling tale worth following to its completion. While it's commendable to see a director of note trying to challenge himself with a passion project, it's clear from the finished results that Reitman isn't quite in tune with the delicate nature of tender, wistful romances and family dramas.

Kate Winslet (The Holiday, Flushed Away) stars as Adele, a socially anxious single mother of 13-year-old Henry (Griffith, Green Lantern), living in a fictional New Hampshire town called Holton Mills (shot in Massachusetts). On a rare outing for Adele in public while shopping for back-to-school clothes at a department store with Henry, a strange, wounded man (Brolin, Oldboy) approaches them and coerces them into assisting him out of the store and to take them home. He tells them his name is Frank Chambers and he has just escaped from a prison hospital and needs a place to lay low for a while because the cops are combing the area. What originally was a request for a couple of hours soon turns into a demand for a stay overnight, and beyond. Meanwhile, Frank begins to bond with his "captives", becoming a sort of surrogate husband and father to them, becoming a handyman and cook, and they in turn remind them of the wife and child he lost in his pre-prison life.

The narrative is told as a series of narrated flashbacks, with Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man 2, 3) narrating the story of Henry to form the main story, while Winslet and Brolin each flash back even further to give their own backgrounds -- Adele's reason for her progressive reclusiveness and Frank's criminal back story. Reitman seems to be hearkening back to the 1980s, when the film is set, by applying a few visual homages to Spielberg, with its poster for E.T. and the fact that the trio watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind together, plus the father/son dynamic that comes to fruition, as well as his staple view of the world through a child's eyes. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Josh Brolin is cast in the film, as his breakthrough to early stardom came with the Spielberg-produced The Goonies.

Other than for some commendable performances, Labor Day benefits from its lush, sumptuous visual style. It's a very pretty moving picture, that lulls you into its nearly timeless sense of romanticized bliss. But that strength in romance is a liability in a thriller. What's really missing is a sense of palpable tension, as we never get the sense that the family is really in a dire situation, as Frank is introduced early on as a man of good character, despite the fact that he is an escaped convict who had originally been sent up for murder.

As such, Reitman concentrates more on the possibilities of the uniting of this unlikely family, showing how Frank neatly fits into just what missing from the lives of a mother and son. During these moments, the film works relatively well from a typical romance perspective, though it often comes across as too sappy in trying to make everything Frank does seem like a strong, sensual act. He ties up Adele just so she can say she was held against her will, though he lovingly ties the knots and even manually feeds her a bowl of chili he cooks himself. The family making a peach pie together is shot in dreamy hues, soft light and delicate musical cues, with plenty of heightened, swoony elements as they all squish flour and peaches together with their hands (sometimes the best tool is the one attached right to you, hunky Frank dreamily notes.)

Meanwhile, as he is just hitting puberty, Henry is beginning to notice girls around him, and the film eventually concentrates on one in particular that he meets later in the film, a savvy big-city transplant who finds living in this Norman Rockwell-esque town all too square. She has a flirtatious wit about her, but her words seem far too mature from someone of her age (or any age, really - she's very artificial), and her entire personality feel idealized and out of place. It is with her introduction that this film, which had been skirting the line between actually being a pleasant drama and somewhat effective romance, finally loses its footing, with Reitman stumbling in nearly every scene henceforth. This wrongheadedness even infects the main story, as the family begins to dream that they can indeed continue their burgeoning ramshackle nuclear family beyond just a few days of early bonding.  The climax is clumsy and manufactured, and lacks the requisite emotional resonance, which is a sure sign that the romantic seeds sown aren't bearing fruit.

Labor Day finds multiple use of the words in its title, literal in terms of when the events take place, but also echoes of physical labor (the many scenes of chores being done around the house) and of the labor involved in childbirth. But unless you're a softie who enjoys displays of tender but superficial romance flicks of any variety, you'll likely find this predictable and saccharine melodrama a labor to sit through to the end.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo