Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Brighid Fleming
(Paramount; US theatrical: 31 Jan 2014 (General release); 2013)
Their fingers intermingle, the juiciness of the overripe peaches mixing with the sugar and seasonings to coat their hands with sticky sweetness. It’s hot, and as the sweat slicks down their necks, the obvious body heat generated by the pairing pushing them closer and closer into a forbidden affair. As the final steps are taken, the dough rolled out and cut, the fruit mounded up in the middle of the pan, we sense that nothing will ever be the same for ex-con prison escapee Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) and his psychologically scarred hostage Adele (Kate Winslet).
Oh, and did we mention that her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) was part of that dessert-making foreplay as well? Imagine Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore throwing clay with a teenage boy as part of the process and you begin to understand how misguided and off-base this claimed romantic drama is. Instead of taking the genre and defying expectations, Labor Day merely defies logic.
And logistics. It’s a movie that makes no sense, a storyline that struggles to find reasons to force these people together without providing enough initial backstory to suggest their possible pairing. Over the course of its near two hour running time, we eventually learn about Frank’s legal fate, Adele’s maternal issues, and Henry’s beleaguered back and forth between his slightly crazy mom and his dull, defiant dad (Clark Gregg). The eventual revelations—the murder, the reasons behind the divorce—are supposed to be whoppers, ways for us to see how life plays tricks on us and turns events where we are right into realities of wrong. But thanks to the ham-fisted seriousness with which filmmaker Jason Reitman treats the material (adapted from a book by Joyce Maynard) it all arrives with a dreary, derivative, thud. Yes, that Jason Reitman, the guy behind the undeniably great films Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Young Adult, and Up in the Air
Perhaps on the page this cloying coming of age mixed with the mystery man who enchants his captives genre mash-up worked. Maybe the passion in our mind could compensate for the lack of chemistry between Winslet and Brolin onscreen or the idiotic moments between Henry and the newly arrived ‘dirty’ girl Eleanor (Brighid Fleming) who gets his hormones good and pumping (these scenes could have easily been excised and, except for a moment of necessary exposition, nothing would be lost). But as filtered through Reitman’s wrongheaded aesthetic, everything becomes a crisis - of conscious, of cruelty, of craving and carnality. Adele is supposed to symbolize a woman broken by biology, but all she really appears to need is a good screwing from a man whose machismo radiates as readily as his ability to bake a damn good peach pie.
Indeed, Brolin’s Frank is the weak link here, a henpecked dupe who ended up with a local slag for a wife. As scenes suggest her sleeping around on her well-meaning man and abandoning the baby that may or may not be his, everything becomes crystal clear: Frank is innocent, a victim of circumstance in an era where truth is often clouded by outside situations and the evidence they provide. When he arrives in Adele and Henry’s life, there is no real threat. He’s not about to hurt them to save himself. He doesn’t brandish weapons and whine about his “lose trigger” and he is invited into Adele’s bed, never once forcing the issue.
As he wanders around the fractured family home, making chili and repairing gutters, we suddenly find ourselves questioning the movie’s motives. If Frank is such a wanted man, wouldn’t an impromptu game of catch outdoors be verboten? Or an afternoon on a ladder cleaning gunk off the roof?
Labor Day is also shameless. The situation with Adele and her past pregnancies aside, there’s a moment that comes out of left field and appears added in to show our players that the people of this small New Hampshire town are just as bad as everyone says Frank supposedly is. A neighbor, played by Silence of the Lamb‘s Brooke Smith, has a handicapped son that she leaves with Adele as she runs to a hospital two hours away. Over the course of the kid’s stay, Frank takes to him and they have a wonderful time being normal and doing normal things.
Then mom returns and sees that her son is antsy over something (he’s seen the wanted posters on TV and has put two and two together) so… she slaps him. Hard. It’s a moment meant to resonate, to twist our already tweaked emotions away from society and back towards the safety and security of Frank’s need for freedom and his “hostages” desire for him to have it. But it comes across as crass and cruel.
It could be that Reitman thought a straightforward interpretation of the book would be best. Sure, we get the random flashes to the past that don’t make sense until we see them all strung together at the end, and there are a couple of quirky characters, JK Simmons and James Van Der Beek, that suggest something a bit more subversive. But all this filmmaker wants to do is deliver the narrative and then let it work on our soon to be plucked heartstrings.
Sadly, such a revelation never arrives. When it looks like the planned trip to Canada will finally come to fruition, when Henry’s pre-teen urges cause him to spill the beans about what’s going on, when Adele’s trip to the bank does little except raise suspicions, we know where the movie is really heading. Even the epilogue, which puts everything into an award winning pie perspective, fails to raise a single teardrop.
With a resume like his, we expect more from Jason Reitman. After all, this is someone who made Diablo Cody tolerable—twice! Here, he can’t help but turn Labor Day into Nicholas Sparks with delusions of grandeur. This is Lifetime level material attempting to be operatic, a Harlequin romance retrofitted to have more (intended) meaning than it will ever actually possess.
Maybe if he had tapped into the inner kitsch most of these soccer mom stories have, Labor Day wouldn’t be so sappy. As it stands, this is one five hanky tearjerker and barely deserves a tissue.