A major misstep for the usually reliable Jason Reitman, the flat out bizarre romantic drama Labor Day can never settle on a tone or feel remotely believable for a single second. It wastes a perfectly capable cast by giving them roles that could never been seen as functional human beings, and it’s so latently sexist and just all around uneasy that it fails at whatever it’s trying to attempt. It never decides if it wants to be a low key, complex drama echoing John Cassavetes or if it wants to be an overwrought melodramatic romance in the vein of Nick Cassavetes. It’s really hard to see what drew such a talented bunch of people to ultimately make something this messy and off putting.
It’s the titular summertime weekend in 1987, and small town New Hampshire 7th grader Henry (Gattlin Griffith on screen, with narration from older Henry provided by Tobey Maguire) gets respite from caring for his still shell shocked, depressed, and lovelorn mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in a very unusual way. At the start of the weekend, the mother and son are stopped in a department store by a suspicious and potentially dangerous fugitive named Frank (Josh Brolin). Looking for a place to lie low after breaking out of a prison infirmary (where he was serving an 18 year murder sentence and he recently had an appendectomy that’s still bleeding), Frank imposes himself on the fractured family, and lo and behold this mysterious stranger becomes the father figure Henry had been searching desperately for and the loving, caring, attentive man that Adele has been longing for.
Incredulity towards the plotting aside (by the second day Frank is already cleaning the gutters, fixing the car, doing masonry work, reporting that they are getting ripped off when buying cordwood, waxing the floors, and proving himself to be a master chef – all of which pretty much induces Stockholm Syndrome and swooning in what has to be record time), the film gets off to an unnervingly and highly implausible fast start, but it manages to get more unnerving as it goes on. In adapting Joyce Maynard’s novel, Reitman has crafted an incredibly right wing friendly, overly chaste dime store “romance” that harkens back to a time where men were men and completely infallible in all they ever do and women are hysteric histrionic basket cases that are incapable of letting go of past traumas that only the love a good man can mend.
Through the use of narration, it would be easy to assume that Reitman might be trying to make a coming of age story; something that plays to his strengths as a filmmaker. But despite Gattlin’s best efforts being one of only two people in the entire cast that are able to bring some humanity to their poorly written roles (James van der Beek being the other as a local cop, in a much smaller part), the concept of Henry trying to accept a new father figure never takes hold, as he’s ultimately relegated to a voyeur in his own life. He does get a very brief summer crush (on the motor-mouthed new girl in town who goes to an arts school, wants to sue her parents, thinks they are dating after one kiss, and proudly proclaims that she has an eating disorder), and he gets to be snarky to his all-too-happy-to-be-remarried dad (Clark Gregg). But really he’s only there to give perspective to and comment on the really icky love story.
Frank is written as and played by Brolin as a just a general, all around nice guy who has been forced into fighting for his own survival. He’s such a laissez faire hostage taker that neither of his captives ever sees him as a threat, despite knowing he’s a convicted murderer. He never professes his innocence, but keeps ominously saying “there’s more to the story than you hear in the papers,” again without ever explaining himself except for some flashbacks that the audience is privy to but not the characters. With that in mind, any attempts to mine tension from Franks sordid past and his perceived propensity for violent reaction is laughable because of just how gosh darn swell of a guy he’s made out to be. Then, late in the film when it’s finally revealed what he did – an act so hateful and such an overreaction that no amount of pie baking or playing catch in the backyard would ever redeem him – it feels like an incredibly sleazy cheat that Reitman actively wants the audience to root for this guy and his escape with the new family he has created for himself. Even worse, the one person who ultimately blows his cover in the final act will be the one character who is arguably just as awful of a person as he is, again with Reitman thinking that “wrong act A” shouldn’t be held to the same standard of “wrong act B.”
It’s still not as bad as what Winslet gets, though. Adele is such a neurotic mess that she can’t even leave the car to run errands, meaning she always has to look sad even at her happiest. Instead of a simple explanation of her mental illness as an extension of her heartbreak over losing her husband to his secretary or something simple that could scar someone for life, she’s saddled with a backstory so tragic that it feels almost like a black comedy parody of trauma. It’s an incredible amount of overkill that made me want to take a shower from having to sit through it. She’s forced to overact to the heavens instead of being restrained because ultimately her character will have to be in such an awful mental place that only the rugged charms of a good hearted convict who in no way ever did anything awful to hurt a woman and child in his life (hint hint spoilers sarcasm) will be the only one who could enter the walls she has put up for herself.
It’s flat out insulting and gross, albeit very well directed and staged grotesquerie. It has about as many artful lens flares as an early J.J. Abrams film. It’s competently edited, and it never resorts to using pop standards to convey a sense of time or place. The highly talked about sequences of Frank making food are pretty great, even though as someone who loves baking pies I can tell you they still manage to screw up making a pie crust. Actually the pie crust is a pretty great metaphor for the film itself: shakily made, wordily produced, overblown, full of holes, and switched out as soon as it hits the oven to look picture perfect like nothing was wrong in the first place. Why anyone as talented as Reitman and these actors would participate in something this bafflingly tone deaf is beyond me.