Review: Labor Day (2014)

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Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Jason Reitman
Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, James Van Der Beek, Clark Gregg & Brooke Smith
Runtime: 111 min // Certificate: 12a

Ok, so I have a bit of a confession to make… I’m not a Jason Reitman fan at all. I abhor his anti-choice tirade Juno (whether it was Reitman’s intention to make the film anti-choice or otherwise is almost irrelevant, as that was still the final result), I think Up in the Air is humourless, emotionless drivel and Thank You for Smoking is a dull, tiresome affair with no comic or dramatic appeal whatsoever. Nonetheless, despite all of this, at the start of this year I recommended Labor Day – his latest film – as one of the “coming-of-age” films to look out for in 2014, on the basis that Kate Winslet is great and the story sounded relatively interesting. Well this is me, apologising profusely for misleading you all so shamelessly.

Alright, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration… nevertheless, having now seen it, I can’t say I’d actually recommend Labor Day to anybody; though oddly enough, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad film. Set, primarily, in 1987 and based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is – on the whole – a passable romance story with the occasional twist thrown in to give it some sort of edge. It follows three main characters; Adele (Winslet) – a divorcee struggling with depression – Henry (Griffith), her affable 13-year-old son, and Frank Chambers (Brolin) – an escaped convict who winds up taking refuge in Adele’s house. Over the course of the Labor Day weekend, Adele and Frank develop feelings for each other, despite Frank’s criminal past, while Henry starts to learn all about love and puberty and so on.

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By all rights this is the type of film I should hate, so I was pleasantly surprised to at least find it tolerable. I mean its treatment of women – which I’ll explore in more detail in a moment – is nigh on atrocious but there are a few decent things going on too which stop it being a total fuck up. For starters, Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith are very good as the Mother and Son who are mostly isolated from the outside World. Winslet shakes, shivers and stutters her way through a saccharine script, though she does so with serious skill, while Griffith is perfect as the son to whom she is utterly devoted. Brolin is… well, he’s Brolin, though his handsome brooding suits the film’s “fanciful romance” tone rather well.

Alas, it is the “fanciful romance” nonsense that prevents the film from being anything other than mediocre. Reitman, to his credit, does what he can to make the material a bit less flaccid, but no amount of directorial flair can excuse the fact that the plot is just too ludicrous. There is a complete absence of believability and, ergo, credibility to what happens, meaning that the audience will struggle to connect with these characters on any emotional level. Unlike most other romances, where there’s a certain level of wish fulfilment to be expected, Labor Day deals with a woman falling in love with a murderer and, as such, you have the right to expect a little bit more authenticity from the story.

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On a more problematic note, this is a film that asks its audience to sympathise with a man who assaulted his wife because she was cheating on him, just because he knows how to cook and is a dab band with a screwdriver… Frank isn’t a nice man, irrespective of what Reitman and Maynard might want you to think, so the fact that he’s portrayed as such rubs me up the wrong way. I mean, let’s look at what happens here; he threatens a woman and her son, the woman develops a severe case of Stockholm syndrome, the son pines for a Father figure and, in a moment of cunning realisation, Frank exploits that for all it’s worth. The fact that the film doesn’t go completely off the rails, despite all of this, is a testament to just how good it could’ve been were the plot itself not such a shambles.

There are some positives though; the “coming-of-age” thread is decent, though it goes woefully underexplored, and there is a welcome pessimism to those moments that examine the drastic consequences of this ludicrous romance, but it’s all undermined by the film’s turgid conclusion. Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith carry the film on their shoulders and prevent it from becoming an Endless Love-esque dud, and Reitman does his best to make the story interesting, but when push comes to shove you have to wonder why on Earth he wanted to adapt it in the first place. If it’s faithful to the source material, the novel must be a total drag because the film, though nicely-shot and well-acted, is pretty damn ridiculous. I didn’t hate it – indeed, a small part of me liked it, albeit begrudgingly – but there’s no denying that it’s all a bit limp.

Oh well, at least it isn’t Kate Winslet’s worst film this year