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Labor Day (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Labor Day

Labor Day

LABOR DAY (2014)

Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Clark Gregg, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Alexie Gilmore, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, Brighid Fleming, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Dylan Minnette and James Van Der Beek.

Screenplay by Jason Reitman.

Directed by Jason Reitman.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 111 minutes. Rated PG.

Jason Reitman has been on quite a tear as a director.  His first four films – Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In the Air and Young Adult – have not only been adventurously plotted, unexpectedly intriguing films, but on the quality scale they ranged from very good to excellent.  They have received critical plaudits and mostly done fairly well at the box office (though the wonderful Young Adult was a bit of a disappointment sales-wise.)

I suppose he was due a creative comedown, and it appears that Labor Day is that film.

For a change, a Reitman film was released to resounding critical indifference when it was briefly released late last year.  Though in general they appreciated his craft, writers grumbled about the odd central relationships, unbelievable story line and clichéd, overly-sentimental romantic novel vibe.  The film came and went from multiplexes with hardly a whisper.

A few months later, Labor Day is getting its video release, so perhaps it’s a good time to reevaluate the movie.  Is it as bad as the original critics suggested?  (And I must admit, I missed the theatrical run, so that was a mystery to me when I came in to the movie.)  Or was it a somehow-overlooked-and-underappreciated little gem?

It appears the original critics were pretty on the money.

Labor Day is not exactly a bad film, though it’s not a particularly good one either.  However, for the first time, a Reitman film has totally missed the mark as far as story line and character development.  It is almost puzzling to think that Reitman expected us to respond to this star-crossed love story between a mentally disturbed woman and the misunderstood escaped convict that essentially takes her and her young son hostage as he hides out in their home over a long Labor Day weekend back in the 1980s.  (Reitman wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Joyce Maynard.)

That’s just such an odd story conceit that it’s nearly impossible to wrap your arms (and mind) around.

The fine acting by Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin as the doomed couple held apart by the law and a lack of mental soundness does nothing to change the fact that the plot line just does not work on any level.  Two characters that we may have liked and rooted for in a different situation just seem foolish, naive and rather delusional to think that they may be able to find true love in this explosive atmosphere.

Adele (Winslet) is a wife and mother whose ex-husband (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary.  In the years that passed since that, hubby has moved on and married his new squeeze, but Adele has spiraled into extreme depression and borderline agoraphobia – only leaving the house when absolutely necessary.

One of those necessities was on Labor Day weekend when Adele had to force herself out with her 13-year-old son Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith and narrated as an adult by Tobey McGuire) to shop for his school needs for the upcoming year.  While they are shopping, Henry is approached by a strange, bleeding man who insists on getting a ride with the boy and his mother.  Oddly, Henry gamely agrees (apparently no one explained to him the importance of not talking to strangers, particularly pale bleeding ones).

The man is Frank (Brolin), who makes them take him home with them, promising that he will leave the first thing the next morning (though he doesn't leave for a few days.)  Over those days, a weird connection is formed – though whether it is love or Stockholm syndrome is debatable.  Frank is handsome and thoughtful and courtly (he only ties her up to give her plausible deniability).  By the time Frank teaches her and Henry to make a peach pie (in a sensual scene that is quite obviously patterned after the pottery wheel scene in Ghost), Adele is a goner, romantically, at least.

Of course, the problem is, the audience can't help but think Adele is borderline negligent with Henry, even before the escaped convict enters their life and she decides on a whim to go on the lam with her son and the con.  Interestingly, she never asks for an explanation of his crime.  Though she knows he is in jail for murder she seems not the tiniest bit worried about uprooting her life to live on the run to Canada with this man she just met.  A man who killed his last wife.

Brolin's character of Frank is better thought out.  Despite the fact that he is a convicted murderer (flashbacks tease what happened through much of the film, before finally showing he accidentally killed his ex-wife by pushing her in a moment of passion and she hit her head, splitting her skull) and a prison escapee (he casually explains how he got away to the little kid), he does appear to be a basically good man. 

He does not threaten or hurt his hostages.  He allows them to come and go as they please.  He even takes advantage of the time stuck at the house by doing home repairs, auto repairs and all the cooking, even teaching them how to make that peach pie.  However, Frank is on the run and is bleeding profusely from his stomach.  He is not a stupid or deluded guy – he has to know there was no way this was going to end well.

Therein lays the primary problem with Labor Day.  Nobody – not the filmmakers, not the characters, not the audience – can really believe that this situation could possibly have a happy ending.  Therefore, you sit back and watch three people playing house and wait for the almost inevitable moment when the law shows up to spoil their best-laid plans.

Alex Diamond

Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 25, 2014.

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