Labor Day (2013)
Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard, is the kind of sappy material that you never would have expected director Jason Reitman to attach his name to. Reitman has been accumulating an enviable career of top-shelf dark comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult), yet his touch with characters and actors, as well as his delicacy with tone, reminded several of a young Billy Wilder. The stuff of Labor Day felt more like a Lifetime channel original movie. This is just one artistic miscalculation from the start and it doesn’t get better as it goes.
Back over Labor Day weekend in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is living with his grieving mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and performing many of the duties of a husband (don’t get gross). It’s been some time since Henry’s parents divorced but Adele has become a shell-shocked recluse who can barely talk or look others in the eye. While visiting a grocery store, Henry runs into a dangerous man named Frank (Josh Brolin). He’s bleeding from the abdomen and intimidates Adele to give him a ride. Frank is an escaped prisoner and he takes to hiding at Adele’s home. After the initial hostage period, Frank allows Henry and Adele to walk around freely, as long as they don’t tell anyone where he is. As the days pass, Frank helps out around the house, helps Adele get out of her funk, and becomes a surrogate father figure for Henry. The unconventional family must evade the police and skeptical townsfolk to make a run for it.
The very premise and its tone are just not a good fit for Reitman. First off, the movie plays out far more like a hostage thriller than any sort of romance. If you were to look deep inside, the romance can be explained as one very emotionally needy woman and her child going through Stockholm syndrome. The entire movie takes place over the titular Labor Day holiday, which means that all these changing feelings have to morph over the time period of three days. I don’t know if I’d call that love, even in Movie Land. Hey, Frank didn’t kill everyone and he helps around the house, isn’t he great? These people should be far more afraid for far longer. It is almost comical how saintly Frank becomes and how many surrogate father activities he squeezes into the abbreviated window of time. He performs handyman jobs all around the house, teaches young Henry how to change a tire, tosses a baseball with the kid, teaches everyone the finer points on pie making, and other such helpful activities. I understand that these two lonely people finally see a replacement man; for Henry a father, for Adele a lover. Again, the three-day time window makes everything appear like the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. How many of those abducted have uttered, “He’s not that bad. You just don’t know him like I do”? Frank’s back-story is tragic but he is a wanted felon and he has no problem threatening both of these people’s lives in the beginning. Yeah he doesn’t resort to violence or yell in their faces, but why would he against an adolescent boy and his easily cajoled mother? No matter how long Reitman spends showing us the softer side of Frank, especially while preparing delectable dishes of food, he’s no more developed than the common Misunderstood Bad Boy.
Then there are the dawdling coming-of-age moments clinging to young Henry, a boy growing up quickly in a tumultuous holiday weekend. It strikes me as tonally odd to already take a tricky balancing act with the film’s plot and then tossing on a coming-of-age addition. The story is told from Henry’s perspective, and that’s a major problem as well. He’s the least interesting person in this dramatic setup. Being confined to his viewpoint often keeps us distant from the deeper drama going on. I’d rather spend time with Adele and Frank bonding so that the romance can find some traction, but no. Al we hear are the thumps from the other side of the wall and the gentle whisperings between them in stolen glances. It’s a frustrating perspective because quite frankly nobody really cares about this kid’s sexual awakening and his daydreams about the cute girl’s bra. His dad (Clark Gregg) wants to talk to him about the birds and the bees. His mom talks about the same. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for the audience with both parents wanting to cover the sex talk. There’s a wanted man hiding in his home! Henry’s personal growing up drama has no equivalency to this. Of the three main characters, doesn’t Henry seem like the worst participant to tell the story? It doesn’t help that Tobey Maguire narrates as older Henry. Have we not learned from The Great Gatsby: Maguire’s voice does not suit narration.
It’s the film’s more tense moments where you get glimpses of the real movie here, the thriller that’s been gussied up and disguised as some strange romance. Whenever someone gets close to discovering what’s really going on in that house, the movie picks up and grabs your interest once more, albeit fleeting. The fear of getting caught is potent but it should have been more omnipresent. The film, through Henry’s perspective, is treated like this nostalgic chestnut of that one summer a convicted killer held us hostage. The police are canvassing for an escaped prisoner but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be that alarmed, still going about their business bringing desserts and fresh produce to one another’s doorstep. Too much of the film implies the threat, like with a short glimpse of a police checkpoint, but places it on the back-burner so that the romance can take shape. Again, this is a byproduct of being stuck in Henry’s perspective whereas the kid might not have the best understanding of how serious everything is (he’s worried his mom will abandon him and run off with Frank). But in those brief moments of dread and tension, this is where Labor Day works, and Reitman does a great job of turning the screws and building that suspense. It makes you wish the whole thing were a thriller.
No one is going to question that Winslet (Divergent) and Brolin (Gangster Squad) are great actors, but boy do these characters underachieve. There is one very effective and moving monologue Winslet has about her pregnancy problems that have turned her away from the world, but it’s not enough. For much of the movie, she plays such an anxious and internalized character, so it’s hard to really follow her emotional development. That monologue does the most heavy lifting but it’s pretty wan before and after. Winslet is too good an actress to play essentially a catatonic woman that’s fairly mute. Brolin can play a soulful brute in his sleep. There’s so little to challenge him and so he seems on autopilot. It also hurts that both Frank and Adele have very limited conversations. It’s a romance told in gestures and handclasps (and the rhythmic thumping of walls at night). It’s not their fault that their characters are underwritten and unsatisfying. Griffith (Green Lantern) is a nice young actor but he too is forced to communicate much with little and comes up short. James Van Der Beek (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) is a local cop who appears for one scene, and afterwards you wish he would stick around longer. Look for Reitman good luck charm J.K. Simmons (Dark Skies) as a helpful neighbor.
Reitman is such a talented director that he can almost pull off sequences in Labor Day despite all of its inherent structural, tonal, and perspective flaws. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a gauzy, amber-accented tale with plenty of strong alluring visuals to set you at ease. There are these trembling moments where you almost see what attracted Reitman to the film, but the finished product is just a mushy misfire. It’s earnest without having earned our emotions, and the thriller elements and the romance elements are in constant conflict. We all remember our grandparents telling us that magical moment they knew they had met the one when he tied her up and held her hostage. Much of the drama that comes from the premise is handicapped from the mistake of having Henry as the chief storyteller and point of view. His limited involvement means we’re kept at the peripheral for too many important moments. I have no doubt Reitman will rebound and quickly (he’s already filming his next movie and has optioned a book for his next next movie). Get ready to have Labor Day play every subsequent Labor Day weekend on the Lifetime channel, its true home.
Nate’s Grade: C