Review: 'Labor Day' Gives an Awkward Relationship Mixed Results
by Jeremy Kirk
January 31, 2014
Jason Reitman is a filmmaker in love with relationships. Whether its a young pregnant woman's relationship with the couple who will adopt her unborn child or the relationship between a young adult writer and the people that she utterly despises, these connections are the driving force behind his films' respective emotions. Labor Day, his latest, is right in line with the rest. In terms of the driving force, that is. The results are varied, but a pair of powerhouse performances keeps Labor Day from being the too-simple-with-too-much-saccharine film it threatens to be. Trashy at times, very messy at others, it's a bag of mixed results, all the while wanting nothing more than to have tears streaming down your face. Read on!
Reitman adapted the story from Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name. Set in 1987, it tells of the weekend that changed the lives of young Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) and his single mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). His father/her husband has long since left them for happier times in a new family, and Adele's depression weighs on every moment of every day of Henry's life. That is, until Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict, forces his way into their lives.
With police scouring the area for Frank, Adele and Henry take him into their homes, practically welcoming the presence of an adult male. It doesn't hurt that Frank is just misunderstood, sent to prison for reasons that are slowly developed through flashbacks, and simply wants to enjoy some happiness in his own life. He finds that with the mother and son, his relationship with Adele quickly - and obviously - becomes romantic. Also, the guy knows how to make a mean peach pie, as is revealed in probably the most dynamically executed and awkwardly pseudo-sexual scenes of the movie.
That peach pie scene is just one, but Reitman's adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel is filled with as much beauty as it is discomfort, sequences lined with real emotion as well as eccentric but misplaced character. Reitman's talents have always favored those eccentricities in his characters, almost as much as they've favored the relationship between them. Granted, the two examples above - Juno and Young Adult - were scripts from Diablo Cody, but even Thank You For Smoking and Up In the Air, adaptations written by Reitman, had eccentricities enough to fill a warehouse.
In Labor Day, though, much of it seems forced, the main through-line more of a straightforward coming-of-age story than a colorful circus of amusing characters. The film bounces from one tonal shift to the next, the raw power in the relationship between the three leads getting caught up in the mix. Sometimes the film works. Sometimes it doesn't. It becomes clear soon enough that the chance of the next scene drawing emotion or unintentional laughter from the audience is a roll of the dice.
Much of what keeps Labor Day afloat - other than that 50/50 shot we might get something beautiful just around the next corner - is how organic the chemistry is between those three leads. Brolin is the dark, quiet type here, and the actor embodies those characteristics more than he embodies the character. It's fine but not groundbreaking. Winslet is in full-on, half-crazy, awards-season mode, but it's Winslet. You know she can act that part's ass off. Griffith is a fine, young actor, one who illustrates a level of strength that makes you feel sorry for him whenever the Tobey Maguire voiceover narration kicks in.
When the three come together, though, it's natural. Melodramatic as it is, seeing Frank, Adele, and Henry try to squeeze some semblance of happiness out of this rock of life is moving. When they succeed, it's impassioned. And when the potential for failure rears its ugly head, it's suspenseful. All of that emotion can be attributed to the actors in charge of the three, lead parts here.
It can't go unsaid that Reitman surely had a strong hand in drawing those performances out of these actors, as well. No matter how mixed the results have been from the stories and execution of those stories, Reitman's films have always had a strength in the acting involved. Yes, they're gifted actors that Reitman must feel lucky to have worked with, but putting the right actor's face with the right character's name and kickstarting every, individual performance is a directorial art unto itself. At that, Reitman always triumphs.
There is the matter of those mixed results, though, and Labor Day, for all of its collected acting prowess, is the most mixed bag Reitman has given us yet. It's a film that will draw you in one moment and have you looking for the nearest exit the next. It's a coming-of-age story filled with ideas that have been broached countless times before, and, yet, Labor Day never completely fails. It never entirely succeeds, either, and that deflating sound you hear throughout pretty much the entire movie is more than just a pie that needs more time in the oven.
Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10
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