‘Labor Day’ Is a Labor-Intensive Watch

[30 April 2014]

By Jon Lisi

According to most moviegoers and critics, Kate Winslet is one of contemporary cinema’s best actresses. If this is true, her performance in Labor Day (2013) isn’t indicative of her talent.

Directed by Jason Reitman, Winslet plays Adele, a depressed housewife who harbors an escaped prison inmate (Josh Brolin) in her house and falls in love with him. If this premise sounds ridiculous to you, then you’ve passed the sanity test. Reitman’s screenplay is based on Joyce Maynard’s novel, and he should have had the good sense to select another project.

Winslet, too, should have realized that most moviegoers are sick of her depressed housewife character. After Little Children (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008), we get that Winslet knows how to play suburban angst and wish that she would try something different.

There’s so much talent on display in Labor Day that ultimately the film is a major disappointment. Reitman is an accomplished filmmaker, and his earlier works like Thank You for Smoking (2005), Up in the Air (2009), and Young Adult (2011) are modern masterpieces. It’s somewhat of a shock, then, that Labor Day doesn’t engage the viewer in any meaningful way. 

There are two stories told in the film. The first and most prominent focuses on the relationship between Adele and the fugitive, Frank, and the way it impacts Adele’s adolescent son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). The second is told in flashback and explains why Frank went to prison. In addition, there is a strange, awkward subplot in which Henry forms a relationship with a girl his age, and it’s supposed to mirror the sexual tension between Adele and Frank.

The preposterous premise of the film wouldn’t be a problem if it was executed well. Reitman’s maudlin approach, however, removes the eroticism from the picture and renders it laughable as a result. I didn’t buy any of it, and when the third act reached its “shocking” conclusion, I wished for nothing more than the DVD to stop working and put me out of my misery. Unfortunately, the DVD played on, which is arguably the only saving grace that comes with this duel-format purchase.

Winslet attempts to capture Adele’s anxiety with her shaking hands and nervous twitches, but it’s hard to believe that any woman would act this way. I’m more inclined to blame Reitman for this, considering that Winslet has successfully played a depressed suburbanite in other films, but it’s a cringe-worthy performance, nonetheless. Winslet is so sacred in certain circles that she’ll be praised for anything, which might explain why she was nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance, but even the greats need to be called out when they phone it in. 

If Safe Haven (2013) can find an audience, then anything can happen to Labor Day, but better films have been made about similar subject matter. The Bridges of Madison County (1995) is a far superior love story between two lost souls, Monster’s Ball (2001) is a more intriguing investigation of detached eroticism, and Little Children represents Winslet at her very best.

Perhaps in the future someone will invent a fun drinking game in which everyone takes a shot when something unintentionally hilarious happens in Labor Day. This is the only way I can imagine viewers sitting through this otherwise useless dreck.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181151-labor-day/