Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Jason Reitman based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Adele), Josh Brolin (Frank), Gattlin Griffith (Henry), Tobey Maguire (Adult Henry), Tom Lipinski (Young Frank), Maika Monroe (Mandy), Clark Gregg (Gerald), James Van Der Beek (Officer Treadwell), J.K. Simmons (Mr. Jervis), Brooke Smith (Evelyn).
There is a possibility that at some point we will look back at Jason Reitman’s Labor Day as a transitional film for the talented filmmaker. His first four films – Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult – are all comedies, all enjoyable, all somewhat cynical and trying to be hip (and mostly, succeeding), but certainly show a progression towards something a little bit deeper than he initially suggested. By contrast, Labor Day is such an earnest romantic drama that you can hardly believe it’s from the same director. It’s that earnestness that ultimately undoes the film – Reitman can never quite find the right tone to make the fairly ridiculous plot and characters seem in any way believable. Yet, he plays everything so straight that you cannot even have any fun watching the film. This is definitely a film in which Reitman is trying to stretch – trying to grow – and do something completely different. He succeeds in doing something different – he just doesn’t succeed in making a good movie. I’m interested in seeing what Reitman does next – does he push further in this new direction, learn from what didn’t work this time, and deliver something better? Does he retreat back into the type of movies he knows so well? Or does he make something as tired and creaky as Labor Day again? One thing is for sure – while I thought Reitman got better with each of his first four films, that streak is certainly over.
Adele (Kate Winslet) is a woman who has never really gotten over the fact that her husband left her, and married another woman. She raises her son Henry (Gattlin Griffth), but doesn’t like to leave the house. Still at some point, you eventually do need to leave – if only to buy food (especially since this is the 1980s) so right before Labor Day weekend that is what she and Henry do. It’s at the store that Frank (Josh Brolin) approaches Henry. He’s bleeding, limping and needs a ride. Adele doesn’t want to, but Frank makes it clear that she doesn’t have a choice. She takes Frank to her house, and he explains who he is – an escaped convict, who jumped out of a hospital window after getting his appendix taken out – and took off. He only plans to stay until nightfall – then he’ll make his way to the train tracks and leave them alone. It doesn’t work out that way – mainly because Adele and Frank rapidly, and mostly inexplicably – fall in love.
You won’t read a review of Labor Day that doesn’t mention the now infamous pie scene – and there’s a reason for that. Up until the pie scene, which comes roughly a half hour into the movie, I wasn’t quite sure what Reitman was trying to do in the film – the tone of the film seemed off, too subdued and I wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to figure it out. After the pie scene, you know he won’t be able to. I think the pie scene – in which Frank teaches Adele and Henry how to make a pie crust, complete with close-ups on hands kneading the dough, and handheld camera work, wants to be somewhat similar to the scene in Ghost where they make pottery. But the scene in Labor Day is even more ridiculous than it was in that movie – and far creepier, since Henry is right there with them as Frank is slowly seducing Adele. The film certainly hints at incest – or more accurately Oedipal feelings Henry may have for his mother – throughout the film, but it never really addresses them. This scene, like the others where it comes up at all, seem to be somewhat confused. Perhaps that was the point – the movie is narrated by Henry who is surely confused at this point in his life – on the cusp of being a teenager, noticing girls for the first time and not quite knowing what to do about it. Yet the film is not narrated by Henry the child, but rather Henry as an adult (played by Tobey Maguire – making this is the second 2013 film, following The Great Gatsby, that for some reason thinks Maguire should be narrating films – he has many skills as an actor – narration isn’t one of them), so you would think that there would be some insight that the older Henry could gleam on the events that are now decades in the past – but there doesn’t appear to be. The pie scene is probably the nadir of the film – but there are other moments afterwards – like the whole section with Barry – that are equally ridiculous in their earnestness. The largely wordless flashbacks of Frank as a younger man and how he ended up in jail, don’t help much either.
In short, Labor Day is undone by just how serious and sincere it is about what is basically a ridiculously melodramatic plot. You can make a good melodrama – some will laugh at you for doing so, but screw them – but Labor Day isn’t one. This seems to be a movie that would have been more at home in the 1950s than in 2013 – its whole outlook on life, sex and gender roles are hopelessly old fashioned. Yet, I think the film would have looked silly even back then. I don’t fault the actors much for Labor Day not working – Winslet and Brolin do precisely what is asked of them, and I don’t think any other two actors in history could have made the film work. Sincerity is not something I would have associated with Jason Reitman before Labor Day – and in the film he shows why – he doesn’t come close to pulling it off. I admire Reitman for stretching – for trying something outside his comfort zone, and if it leads to better films in the future, great. But this time, Reitman has made a film that quite simply doesn’t work.