Director Jason Reitman leaves the quirk and comedy of past successes, like “Juno” and “Up In The Air,” to take on a highly dramatic, tense love story in “Labor Day,” starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.
Unfortunately, fundamental issues with character motivation offset strong performances and Reitman’s skilled hand as a director. Ultimately, Reitman’s overwrought fifth film sullies an otherwise pretty stellar track record.
The film, which was also written by Reitman, based off the novel by Joyce Maynard, takes place in 1987 in small town America, where Kate Winslet plays Adele, a depressed mother living in isolation with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who is about to enter the seventh grade. Adele is exceedingly lonely, but her psychological issues render her barely able to engage in the community, save for a trip to the market once a month. This leaves her heavily dependent on her doting son Henry, who dutifully does many of the family errands. Their relationship would most simply be described as Bates-esque. It’s on one of these trips to the store that the bleeding, recently escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) kidnaps Adele and Henry and demands they take him back to their home.
Frank hides from the police in Adele and Henry’s home over the course of Labor Day weekend. Naturally, it starts contentious, but as they all learn more about each other, the barriers between the mother, son and their uninvited guest begin to crumble. Soon Frank begins to immerse himself in their lives, first as a surrogate father figure to Henry, then as a lover to the lonesome Adele.
It’s this shift from hostage situation to family affair that contains the main issues of Labor Day. Both mother and son transition so seamlessly out of being victims and into their new roles, that it seems as though they’ve immediately forgotten Frank is a convicted murderer. The viewer is expected to believe on face value that Adele’s psychological state would hearten her to begin this affair with this clearly dangerous man, as if she were struck by some kind of instantaneous Stockholm syndrome. Eventually, Frank, as well as the audience, learns the harrowing circumstances that generated Adele’s desperate state and extreme need to connect with someone, but by then it feels too late, as if we’re getting the answer to a question we weren’t asking anymore.
Despite the story issues, it should be noted that all the leads, including young Gattlin Griffith as Henry, give very strong performances. A great deal of the film’s 111 minute running time is taken up by the interactions of only three people, so it’s a testament to their skills, as well as Reitman’s directing, that the film moves well, with very few lulls. Brolin’s character appears to be the grizzled stranger we’ve seen him play so many times, but that only makes his more sensitive actions stand out all the more. Winslet makes the refreshing choice not to over-play her character’s mental issues, even when it’s physically affecting her. In the beginning she appears so completely overwhelmed by life that when she begins her relationship with Frank, the unburdening within her is visceral. Finally, Henry is not only dealing with this strange, but intriguing man, who is living in his home and sleeping with his mom, but his own changing body at the onset of puberty. Gattlin’s keen portrayal is that of a boy caught up in the confusion of the world around him and within.
With acclaimed actors like Winslet and Brolin and a twice Oscar-nominated director in Reitman, it’s easy to imagine at one point Labor Day being developed for major award consideration. Its only nomination was a Golden Globe for Winslet’s performance, which must have been not just a disappointment, but also a signifier of the inherent problems of the film. Now with its release this Friday, it seems the filmmakers are trying to gather whatever attention they can during the slower movie season. But with a confusing marketing strategy to deter any sort of mass audience, and more discerning viewers still playing catch-up with more serious award contenders, it seems unlikely that Labor Day will make much of a blip on the cinematic radar at all.
By Adrian Viña
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality – Opens nationwide January 31st, 2014