Jason Reitman has always excelled as a director by finding the extraordinary in the mundane. “Juno,” for example, was a simple story about a young, pregnant girl who use sarcasm to hide her insecurities and was forced to grow up before she was ready. “Up in the Air” was about a businessman who flew all over the world trying to hit the elusive 10 million mile mark only to discover that he has been chasing a meaningless dream. Eventually, he realized that, despite being surrounded by hundreds of people every day, he was just as lonely around them as he was back home by himself. However, in his latest film, “Labor Day,” Reitman attempts the opposite: to find the mundane in an extraordinary situation. As talented as he and his cast are, they can’t make this approach work. Its story is slow, hard-to-swallow, heavy handed and more worthy of eye rolls than tears.
“Labor Day” takes place in 1987. Young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). She has been depressed and lonely ever since her husband, Gerald (Clark Gregg), left her. One day while out shopping, she and Henry are abducted by Frank (Josh Brolin), a recently escaped convict who was serving an 18 year sentence for murder. While at the hospital to get his appendix taken out, he jumped out of the second floor window while the cops were out for a smoke, resulting in a damaged leg. Since he has nowhere to go and can’t move well, he demands Adele drive him to her home where he shacks up for a few days. While there, he cleans, cooks and even fixes broken appliances, which slowly causes Adele to fall in love with him.
The way these moments are handled actually downplays the kidnapping. Never mind the fact that prior to these moments, he was gripping her son’s neck in a violent and threatening way. Or that he tied her up while Henry sat helplessly. Or that he used Henry as his guinea pig to shoo visitors away while he kept Adele from squealing nearby. Sure, Frank killed someone and could potentially kill her and Henry, but boy, can that man make a pie!
And there is its fundamental problem. “Labor Day” tries to negate the evildoings by showing that, hey, Frank is kind of a nice guy. Things may not be as clear cut as they seem, as evidenced by numerous flashbacks that are edited in so randomly as to be initially confusing, but the characers don’t know that. The film tries to make Adele a sympathetic character and, to an extent, she is—she’s clearly heartbroken and longs for some type of affection from someone other than her son—but as Henry puts it, it wasn’t losing his father that broke her heart, but the idea of losing love itself. She’s so desperate for that affection that she quickly looks past the threatening nature of Frank, which could potentially put her own son in harm’s way, for a quick emotional fix. If Frank had explained his indiscretions instead of giving vague assurances like “I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone,” then perhaps her decisions would have held more validity. Such is not the case, however, so they instead come with a lack of reasoning and a type of selfishness that makes her character extremely off-putting.
Thematically, Jason Reitman has never been too subtle. As good as the aforementioned “Juno” and “Up in the Air” are, you’d have to be pretty clueless to not see what they’re going for, but the events surrounding those themes were at least a bit more downplayed, particularly in “Up in the Air.” This makes me wonder what he was thinking while directing this. While some of the in-your-face pervasiveness can be attributed to others (the none-too-subtle score and sound editing quickly come to mind), others are clearly his own doing. The tone of the film is a complete mess, as is the dialogue that works as its foundation. Despite a score that makes it pretty clear upon his onscreen arrival that Frank is not necessarily who he seems to be, the film still tries to throw us off the trail with conflicting dialogue and character mood swings. Frank’s initial hostility quickly turns to a feeling of gratitude right before he once again starts issuing threats; a clumsy arc in an all-around clumsy movie.
To make matters worse, Brolin, in an uncharacteristically mediocre performance does everything he can to manufacture suspense, perhaps at the request of Reitman. He stays inside and away from prying eyes for the majority of the movie, but when he actually does come face-to-face with another person, he couldn’t be more suspicious if he tried. Every event that plays out in “Labor Day,” from the opening sequence to the final shot, is so preposterous that it’s far too difficult to take seriously, a request the film so desperately doles out to its viewers.
Adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name, “Labor Day” is awkwardly paced, tonally inconsistent and narratively absurd. One could joke that the movie came either too late or really early in relation to the actual day the title alludes to, but I’ll say in all seriousness that I wish it had never come at all.
Labor Day receives 1/5