The paint-by-number approach results in a contrived melodrama that lacks any real impact.
The director that made Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air switches gears with his new film, Labor Day, which slows down its pace and trades charismatic and quirky characters for flawed and heartfelt ones, while keeping solid performances from the cast. However, the biggest change from Jason Reitman’s previous films is the paint-by-number approach, which results in a contrived melodrama that lacks any real impact. The outcome is something that has Lifetime movie written all over it; a conventional romance story that features a woman (and family) in distraught, ultimately concluded with an emotionally charged ending that aims to please, but fails to satisfy.
Labor Day wastes no time showing the struggles that a young boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) faces when his depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) can barely bring herself together to drive a car, let alone properly raise the boy on her own. They are well aware that their situation is far from idea, but are able to make do by supporting each other the best they can. Little did they know that a routine trip to the store would change both of their lives forever.
A man who appears to be in desperate need of help spots Henry wandering the store and kindly, yet forcefully asks to speak to his mother. The man introduces himself as Frank (Josh Brolin) and urges the two to house him due to his injuries. Adele initially declines request, like most people would, but she quickly realizes that Frank is demanding a ride rather than asking for one after he grabs Henry by the back of the neck. Because of all of the unspoken subtly found within this scene it ends up being the best in the film, despite Adele ignoring a couple chances to escape (Frank allows the son and mother in the car first after all).
It is not long before the two learn that Frank is a convicted murderer who just escaped from prison, though it does not really change how they treat the situation. In their defense, Frank has the ability to cast a spell over people with his charm and cover up the fact he is really holding them hostage. In fact, since Frank is content with helping out around the house while simultaneously being a father figure towards Henry, he is actually somewhat of a saint for the family. Soon they find themselves longing for Frank to stay with them permanently, knowing full well the consequences if the law finds the fugitive housed there.
Title cards displaying what day of the week it is constantly remind us that what goes on in one day feels like a week. Frank is able to clean out the gutter, fix up the stone work around the house, change the oil and replace fuses in the car, and teach Henry how to throw a baseball all in single never ending afternoon. Not only is Frank quite the handy man, but he is also an unbelievable cook and baker. Add the fact he is able to win over both the mother and the son while essentially hold them hostage and you will start to wonder if there is anything this man cannot do.
Do not be surprised if you find yourself yelling at the screen for the characters to do the very opposite of whatever they are doing. There are many examples of this throughout the film, but none more evident than in the beginning when Adele not only submits to Frank’s orders, but also passes on several opportunities to escape. She trusts him way too quickly off the bat and lets him tie her up without any resistance. Her willingness to comply, especially in the beginning before his charm really settles in, feels very implausible. Thus in order to get through Labor Day you must suspend your beliefs and put away your red flags just as the characters in the film do.
I am convinced there is a well-written story at its core, perhaps in novel by Joyce Maynard that the film is based on. It is easy to see that each one of the characters has an extensive backstory and that there is a range of themes found within the story. There is a coming-of-age section with Henry, a newfound romance between Adele and Frank, and a much-desired family rebirth when they are all together. However, the film settles for such a conventional way to show the story that it does not show the viewer anything they did not already see coming.
Winslet holds up her end of the bargain by wonderfully portraying a single mother who is dealing with severe depression from an emotionally troubled past. It is visually evident that her condition has affect her physical movements, and you can tell that she is having an internal battle on what is best for her son. Winslet’s performance was enough to earn a nomination at this year’s Golden Globes. Unfortunately, Brolin does not type seem to fit the part. While he does a good job with making you feel uneasy about the character when the role calls for it, the same cannot be said when he is supposed to come off as endearing and romantic. He is a bit too stone-faced and impenetrable to actually believe in the sensitive side of his character.
Labor Day is simply mediocre as long as you are willing overlook the weaknesses, but it is disappointing if you were expecting anything more out of it. The film aims to please a crowd by staying in familiar territory and strategically placing flashbacks in order to keep the audience guessing at Frank’s backstory. Labor Day is not a complete bust, but the parts that work are far outnumbered by the parts that do not.