Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, Brooke Smith, Elena Kampouris and Tobey Maguire
Written By: Jason Reitman (based on the novel by Joyce Maynard)
Directed By: Jason Reitman
Labor Day is a small-scale, forgettable melodrama that packs no real punch and at times feels like a Lifetime Original movie featuring A-list talent. Jason Reitman is a talented writer/director having been behind the camera for four solid films – Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day is his first flat out bad movie – one that doesn’t feel like it was made by the same man who was responsible for those four previous and admirably offbeat films. It’s hard to imagine what attracted Reitman to adapting this uninspired and somber drama based on a novel by Joyce Maynard – but what’s even more troubling about Labor Day than its dullness is how ludicrous it all is.
For a film revolving around a love story between a divorcee played by Kate Winslet and an escaped convict played by Josh Brolin, 13 year-old actor Gattlin Griffith gets a large chunk of solo screentime as Winslet’s character’s son Henry, making this somewhat of a coming of age tale. In fact, the film is narrated by an older Henry (Tobey Maguire) recounting events which took place over Labor Day weekend in 1987, with the story being viewed from his perspective for the most part.
Henry lives with his distraught single mom Adele (Winslet) in rural New England where the two share a close relationship. During a trip to the supermarket, mother and son are taken hostage by Frank (Brolin), a wanted convict whose just busted out of prison. Frank forces the two to hide him in their house until the police are off his trail and he can make a run for it.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Labor Day plays out like a home invasion/kidnapping thriller with it’s fairly intriguing setup, only that’s not at all what this movie is. For what can only be chalked up to Adele’s profound loneliness because any other reason would be inexplicable, she begins to fall in love with Frank. Other explanations for her affection explored are that Frank is a master at making peach pie and enjoys playing catch with Henry. As flashbacks will hint, perhaps Frank isn’t such a bad guy after all – maybe even innocent. In an almost reverse Stockholm Syndrome, Frank begins to care deeply for Adele and Henry, risking his own freedom for their well-being. By the way, did I mention that all of this heartfelt devotion happens within one weekend?
The instantaneous bond between Frank and Adele is one of many preposterous plot points which makes it difficult to buy into any of this. That events accumulate to the point where Frank and Adele are willing to risk their lives for one another having only met 72 hours prior is plain ridiculous. Even more so based on the circumstances in which they encountered each other.
Meanwhile, a good crux of the plot features Henry’s romance of his own with a new and mysterious girl in town named Rachel (Elena Kampouris) whom also lives with a single parent. Their infatuation for each other makes slightly more sense than the adults’ but it isn’t any more interesting. Frank’s becoming of a father figure to Henry is juxtaposed against Henry’s relationship with his real father played by Clark Gregg. Henry’s father left his mother for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (probably because she’s such a buzzkill) and so there are some anger issues which need to be worked out. Can a damaged father/son relationship also be repaired over one magical weekend? Well, let’s just say that tenderness happens awfully quickly in this universe.
As with the opening of the film, there are some tense moments sprinkled throughout where Frank has close calls to getting caught and it’s these scenes which are the most engaging. His would be finders come in the form of a nosy neighbor played by Brooke Smith and the town sheriff played by James Van Der Beek. Though mostly short lived, the tone of these scenes are tense enough to suggest that Reitman could direct a solid thriller if he chose to do so in the future.
The performances from Winslet and Brolin are fine – nothing spectacular and nothing you haven’t seen them do before in better films. Young actor Griffith is also satisfactory with the tougher task of carrying much of the film. But the lack of believability in the storyline makes it hard to truly connect with any of them. As far as Tobey Maguire’s narration goes – he’s no Morgan Freeman.
At best Labor Day is a sappy, harmless yarn – at worst it’s thoroughly stupid. Let’s just call this a blip on the radar for Reitman, Winslet and Brolin, all of whom have done bigger and better things and should move on to them again. This is what you get when bad movies happen to good people.