If you like bizarre, confusing tonal shifts wrapped around a sloppy, never-believable-for-a-minute story, look no further than Labor Day. A Lifetime movie with good actors, the film represents the first true misstep of writer/director Jason Reitman’s (Juno) career. This is one strange film, with melodrama that doesn’t dig deep, uncomfortable, unfocused comedy, and thriller elements that initially work, then wear out their welcome when it becomes clear that the movie is going nowhere. Glacially paced, it’s pretty obvious that Reitman had no idea how to adapt Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name. Whether it was adaptable in the first place is worth questioning.
The year is 1987 and life is not joyful for Adele (Winslet) and her son, Henry (Griffith). Adele’s husband left her and she has been a recluse ever since, only venturing out once per month to get groceries. It is at the grocery store that Henry is cornered by Frank (Brolin), an escaped convict on the run. Frank forces Adele to drive him back to her home, where he plans to wait until darkness falls and make a run to the nearest train station. But it soon starts to become apparent that Frank isn’t such a bad guy, and over the long Labor Day weekend Frank and Adele will fall in love, even as the complications pile up.
The opening scenes actually work, as Reitman sponges some tension out of the set up before it becomes clear where this whole thing is headed. It turns out that old Frank isn’t such a bad guy. He does chores around the house, cooks, and appears to fill the emotional void that has existed in Adele’s life. All in seventy-two hours. Aside from the ludicrous notion that Adele would be so irresponsible as to entertain moving/going on the run with this guy after knowing him for a few days, Reitman can’t keep anything resembling a consistent tone. There are entire passages where you simply don’t know how to react. Is this a dark comedy laced with melodrama? How can we be pulled in to the tragic back stories of Adele and Frank when each is followed and undercut by unfocused comedy?
It’s difficult to fault the actors. Kate Winslet is excellent, as always, even with a character that consistently makes baffling decisions. There are few actresses better at playing the tragic, damaged woman, and she alone keeps this film from descending into sheer Lifetime movie malaise. Brolin is also quite good, playing the stone-faced “good” fugitive with his heart in the right place. Had the film taken place over more than just a few days it’d be easier to buy the notion that he’s “the one” for Adele.
Labor Day is the strange marriage between Reitman’s offbeat humor and the kind of gooey grocery store romance novels you see at the check-out counter. It’s a preposterous story hampered by writing and directing that is murky and unclear as to how to shape the source material for the screen. It makes for a very bewildering experience and the kind of ill-timed giggling you only hear during a botched drama.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 111 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality.
Theatrical Release: 2013 (Film Festivals) / January 31, 2014 (Wide)
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman. Based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard.
Cast: Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire