‘Labor Day’ Is Not Much Of A Holiday Movie (Movie Review)

Labor Day:  2 ½ out of 5

Frank:  Frankly, this needs to happen.

It seemed pretty telling of the quality to me that a film by acclaimed director Jason Reitman would be practically swept under the rug, given its low profile release at the end of January, but I had a desire to see it anyway.  I have been a fan of Reitman’s previous films (including Juno, Up In The Air, and Young Adult), so I was more or less pleased at the prospect of seeing another film from him.  While I was not familiar with the novel by Joyce Maynard, which this film is based on, I could get behind a Jason Reitman film that stars Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet.  Unfortunately, while these leads deliver fine work, as that generally comes with casting good actors, the film slipped away from being a poetic coming-of-age story and moved towards being a melodramatic piece of work, finding more in common with familiar Nicholas Sparks dramas.

The film is mainly focused on 13-year old Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith as a child, Tobey Maguire as an adult, who also narrates).  Set in 1987 New Hampshire, Henry lives with his mother Adele (Kate Winslet), who suffers from depression.  Henry’s father Gerarld (Clark Gregg), has re-marries, but Henry has chosen to stay living with his mother, who does her best to get by, while the two live in their large, rural home.  One day at a grocery store, a man (Josh Brolin) approaches Henry and Adele and quietly insists that he be given a ride back to their home.  It is soon revealed that this man is Frank Chambers, an escaped convict, who was serving time for murder.  Frank assures Henry and Adele that he is harmless and proceeds to stay with them over the course of the long, Labor Day weekend.  It is during this time that Frank shows that he is in fact a compassionate person, helping with chores around the house, teaching Henry how to throw a baseball, among other fatherly things, and most importantly opening up Adele, as the two begin to fall for each other.  Of course, being a wanted man will certainly limit options for the future.

Initially I was curious of whether or not this film would fit with Reitman’s other films, which all have a level of snap or hipness to them, given their presentation, the subject matter, and other elements.  While Labor Day is perhaps the most traditional drama that Reitman has worked on, I did start to see his directorial touches, as the film carried on.  He has a way of working with his cinematographer and other crew members to establish a sense of place and rhythm to the design of his films and I did pick up on that in Labor Day.  As far as the look of the film goes, Labor Day makes good use of its New England setting, as there is a picturesque quality to the way we see the environments, the house, and the various activities Frank involves himself in.  At points this goes a bit overboard, as it almost feels like certain events, such as tying someone up, is supposed to have a sensual quality to it.  A key example is of course the food preparation, as we watch Frank go over the details of making a Peach Pie and being very hands on with Adele.  It is the kind of film that provides so much emphasis that it will make you want a slice of said pie, but how much does all of this really matter?

Many of conflicting elements of this film come in the form of the direction it takes in the latter half of the film.  Obviously we have to learn about why Frank was imprisoned to begin with, along with what it is that makes Adele the way she is and these are moments that are quite heavy to take in.  That is not a problem.  If the film wants to layer in these deeply dramatic elements, so be it.  I am not sure if the Terrance Malick-like flashback’s to Frank’s past was the best course of action, but I cannot say it really hurt the film.  My issue lies in these revelations being followed up with various lapses in logic that betray the more palpable drama and turn the film into a mess of melodrama, with an inevitable outcome.  Without spoiling anything, I can just say that Frank is certainly a smart individual and there are a lot of ways he could have planned things better.

Oh, and this is supposed to be a coming-of-age story.  This aspect also causes some strangeness over the course of the film, as it seems very focused on telling the story from Henry’s perspective, but then we have the dips into back stories and events that do not involve Henry at all.  This would be fine, were the film not making the effort to stay focused on Henry, when there are events clearly happening elsewhere at some points, but later deciding to go into these Henry-less events later on.  It certainly helps that Gattlin Griffith does good work as Henry, but some narrative confusion became distracting all the same.

As for Winslet and Brolin, the two look good together.  They certainly play up the awkwardness that turns into a full on romance (over the course of three days), but I cannot shake the idea that this whole experience started to feel like a very dressed up version of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.  This is not to knock against Sparks, as he writes for a very deliberate audience and those film adaptations tend to seem intended for an audience that knows what they are getting into.  I know little about Labor Day the novel, but it seems like there is an element missing to make this film’s story resonate more than on just a surface emotion level.

I was willing to move past the premise of the film, which is admittedly a little silly, given my interest in where it was going.  Unfortunately, while there were elements to admire in Reitman’s presentation of this film, which he also adapted for the screen, Labor Day ended up coming off too schmaltzy, with the quality of the performances only making me wish that the film earned its dramatic weight in a more effective manner.  I guess I prefer Reitman when he’s taking on material more focused on the generation of today, with a bit more cynicism on display.

Adele:  I’m stronger than you think.
Frank:  I don’t doubt that.

Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS4.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.


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