Until now, second-generation filmmaker Jason Reitman has enjoyed an impeccable record as a director, with nary a bum note in any of his previous films, namely Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Therefore, it has taken me a couple of days after seeing his latest offering, Labor Day, to compile my review because I have really struggled to understand how it all went so wrong. How can the man responsible for such fine films as those mentioned also be responsible for this turgid, laboured (no pun intended) mass of ludicrousness? Well, unfortunately, the passage of time has not proffered any great insights that have enabled me to change my assessment of a film that seemed blessed with the necessary ingredients to be something quite special. All of Reitman’s previous features have been loaded with crackling dialogue, revolving around characters that are brashly self-confident and somewhat likeable despite the ambiguity or outright unpleasantness of their actions. There is nothing remotely likeable about anybody in Labor Day and, with the story progressing at a languid pace, the whole experience left me cold.
Kate Winslet is Adele, a single mother who has, to be fair, endured more than her share of heartache, having suffered several miscarriages and a still-birth before being abandoned by her husband. Still wallowing in the misery of her losses, Adele has become a virtual recluse, only leaving the house on rare occasions out of absolute necessity. It is during one of these infrequent excursions into town that Adele and her teenage son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) are accosted and kinda kidnapped by prison escapee Frank (Josh Brolin). Adele and Henry are ‘forced’ to harbour Frank at their house amid promises that he will leave the following morning. Now, it is no great surprise that this never happens and, over the course of an extended holiday weekend, Frank and Adele fall in love. The unlikeliness of such a romance aside, there are a lot of things that occur in this film that are left unexplained or simply don’t make sense at all.
Firstly, there is no context for Frank’s decision to choose Adele and Henry, other than the latter is the first person he stumbles across when hiding out in a department store. I mean, Frank has no idea if Adele has a husband or other children at home, he has no idea where she lives and how suitable the house may be as a place to hide out and he has no idea whether Adele works at all or has any other commitments from which she might be missed. How lucky for Frank that he has stumbled across the perfect hostage; talk about convenient. Despite regular police patrols, wanted posters on every street corner and regular news reports about his escape, Frank has no qualms about playing baseball in the backyard and tending to various odd jobs around the house; inside and out. The whole scenario is unbelievable in the extreme as both Adele and Henry grow fond of Frank for reasons that are difficult to fathom. I mean, despite his claim that there is ‘more to the story’ of the murder for which he has been imprisoned, a series of bland flashbacks ultimately reveal that there is, in fact, very little ambiguity about his role in the death of his girlfriend and infant son.
Whether it is the ludicrous pie baking scene reminiscent of the equally preposterous Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze pottery moment in Ghost; or the romantic sub-plot involving Henry and new-girl-in-town Eleanor (Brighid Fleming); or the nastiness exhibited by neighbour Evelyn (Brooke Smith) towards her handicapped son, nothing really works. The performances from the usually reliable Winslet and the decidedly inconsistent Brolin are dull and uninspired, while J.K. Simmons is grossly under-utilised as the neighbourhood peach grower. James Van Der Beek’s appearance late in the piece as a creepy police officer is hilarious (unintentionally so I imagine) and by the time Tobey Maguire appears in the final moments as the adult Henry, any interest you have in these characters has long since dissipated. Other than a lovely opening montage of the rural locale in which the events take place, there really is little to recommend. Surprisingly given the pedigree of all involved, Labor Day is a major misfire.