Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Jason Reitman (screenplay), Joyce Maynard (novel)
Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg
Release date: December 27th, 2013
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 111 minutes
Best part: The charismatic performances.
Worst part: The egregious romance.
Romantic-drama Labor Day‘s opening credits sequence sets its audience up for a heart-breaking fall. Here, the movie introduces us to one of Middle America’s most gorgeous suburbs. Sure, this seems pleasurable. But, as this sequence goes on, the tedium steadily sets in. In one 30/40-second shot, Labor Day transitions from intriguingly simple to bland and dreary. This movie, leading itself down Oscar-bait lane, is nowhere near as interesting as its all-powerful competition. From the aforementioned credits sequence onward, the movie crashes and burns.
Dear young and old couples alike, don’t be drawn into Labor Day‘s alluring marketing campaign! This movie is the ultimate relationship test. If anyone who watches it says, to their respective partners, things like: “that was so romantic” or “these characters remind me of me”, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror. Despite my scornful words (really, they’re just words!), Labor Day does sport several interesting scenes and revelatory performances. However, despite the slight positives, I still hate this messy and disgraceful melodrama. Anyway, I guess I should describe the ‘plot’. In a sector of 1980s America (I presume), depressed and agoraphobic single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) struggles with day-to-day life. Forced to look after her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) full time, the thought of even stepping outside makes her shake uncontrollably. Relying on Henry’s acute precociousness, she’s unable to fend for herself. In addition, at the local supermarket, several things remind Adele of her current predicament. Henry bumps into escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). Forcing himself into their maudlin lives, Frank finds solace in their quaint home. Over Labor Day weekend, Frank becomes ingrained into their peculiar familial structure. Based on Joyce Maynard’s semi-autobiographical novella, this adaptation bludgeons this already weak-minded genre. Admittedly, the story’s heart-warming premise seems romantic. My steel-like heart melts the tiniest bit for concepts like these. However, Labor Day’s execution, to be gleefully hyperbolic, is as painful as witnessing an actual execution.
Before I go on a “modern romance is awful!” rant, I’ll stop myself dead. My cynical perspective, somehow, became darker as I watched this insipid and egregious romantic-drama. Its problems stem from the story’s core ingredients. As Adele and Frank fall in love, Labor Day slides into a brainless and vacuous lull. Anyone, of any age group, can tear through this unending melodrama’s plot mechanics. Relying on coincidences and implausibilities, the story’s hollow and archaic nature becomes frustrating. From their creepy meet-up onward, Adele and Frank’s romance hurriedly, and unexpectedly, becomes ethically questionable and unlikeable. From then on, the movie falls into manipulative territory. Forcing himself into their lives, Frank, inexplicably, turns into a cross between Bob the Builder and Martha Stewart. Within Labor Day’s malfunctioning 72-hour window, Frank fixes everything around the house, teaches his ‘victims’ how to bake, and turns Henry from a sensitive child into a baseball-loving primate. Even more unrealistic, the leads’ relationship blossoms over this alarmingly short space of time. Frank’s muscle flexing and Adele’s cleavage-friendly dresses become catalysts in this uninspired love story. As the saccharine love child of Fifty Shades of Grey and Nicholas Sparks’ harlequin romance novels, this exhaustive mess is just as stale. Like Safe Haven and The Lucky One, Labor Day is mind-numbingly dull and oddly psychosexual. Sadly, Dear John is much better. My disappointment rests squarely on its wasted potential. Romance, despite mass cultural and critical vile, can make for intriguing and invigorating cinematic gold. The Notebook and Titanic, though not without their flaws, still sit at the top of this schmaltzy leaderboard.
“I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself.” (Henry (Gattlin Griffith), Labor Day).
The blame rests with acclaimed writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air). Reitman, known for insightful and darkly comedic character studies (Thank You for Smoking, Young Adult), avoids his satirical shades and witty edge here. Instead, this energetic filmmaker reaches into an ancient bag of tricks. Where is his sense of humour or acute insight into pop-culture? Despite Reitman’s ambitiousness, his new career path falls into dangerous and degrading territory. Like with Nick Cassavetes, commercial glory and watchful studio eyes now cast a debilitating shadow over Reitman’s distinctive style. Here, Reitman examines his and Maynard’s livelihoods. Based on Maynard’s peculiar experience with a prison pen-pal, the young filmmaker’s efforts dampen this manipulative tale. Displayed in flashback, Frank’s life story and motivations become clear. However, Reitman, clinging onto small and intriguing details, mashes the flashback and flash-forward buttons. Unfortunately, inconsistent flourishes distort several plot points and revelations. Jumping from pre-Vietnam 60s, to present day, then to the swinging 70s, the movie’s timeline doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. However, one sequence is effectively handled. Examining Adele’s dilapidated psyche and harsh life story, this flashback-fuelled vignette sits head-and-shoulders above the present-day romantic dross. Rescuing this atrocious romantic-drama from the cinematic doldrums, Winslet and Brolin deliver touching performances. Though unable to elevate such soggy material, Winslet injects charm and malice into this frustrating character. Looking beyond her character’s child-like mind, the Oscar-winning actress – making the most of this career misstep – relishes in the narrative’s wavering emotional state. Here, Brolin is endlessly charismatic. Despite the lack of chemistry, Brolin’s distinctive voice and charms bolster this irritating character. Meanwhile, Griffith is revelatory as the patriarch turned concerned citizen.
Sadly, Labor Day is a gigantic waste of time, potential, and talent. Despite the cruelty, I see this as a public service announcement. Depicting a joyless and hollow version of romance, this romantic-drama is a calculated, lugubrious, and cynical mess. Earning a spot on my 2014 Worst of the Year list, I pray this Hallmark Channel reject is just a one-off for Reitman. I still like him, but this is pushing it! Even the world’s craziest cat ladies are too intelligent for this one. Skip it at all costs!