Directed by: Jason Reitman
Premise: Adapted from the novel by Joyce Maynard. An escaped convict (Josh Brolin) takes shelter with a single mother and her son (Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith).
What Works: Labor Day features some strong performances by its lead actors. Josh Brolin has a challenging role in that he has to emanate a credible threat of violence while also possessing paternal and romantic qualities and he does that successfully. The star performance of Labor Day is provided by Kate Winslet as a single mother struggling with depression. Winslet has typically played strong-willed characters as seen in Titanic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but in Labor Day the actress is cast as a nervous and emotionally fragile woman who struggles to get over the collapse of her marriage. Winslet does not overplay the sadness and she gives the character dignity while acknowledging her weakness. Labor Day handles the topic of divorced families pretty well, especially in some well-acted scenes between the son, played by Gattlin Griffith, and his father played by Clark Gregg. The performers do what they can to rescue the film whenever it treads into sentimentality, which it does quite frequently.
What Doesn’t: Labor Day was written and directed by Jason Reitman, a filmmaker who has made some impressive pictures such as Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Young Adult. These films were witty and sharp but sometimes suffered from being too self-consciously droll. Labor Day is an attempt by Reitman to broaden his palette with a straightforward drama but he tries too hard and the movie is too self-serious and excessively melodramatic. The result is a film that plays like a big budget Lifetime network movie. Aside from the tonal problems with the picture, Labor Day suffers from some elementary filmmaking and storytelling mistakes. The story is told from the point of view of the boy, whose adult self provides narration, but he does not learn anything from his experience and the subplot of his relationship with a precocious teen girl is mishandled. No one emerges as the protagonist and so the movie keeps all of its lead characters at a distance. The pacing of Labor Day is way off. The bulk of the film takes place over the course of a holiday weekend as Brolin’s escaped convict takes shelter in the home of Winslet’s single mother. This takes up the bulk of the story and it moves dreadfully slow. Not much happens in the movie and when critical events do occur the filmmakers rush through them. This is especially apparent in the ending, which rambles through about two decades of material in minutes. The filmmakers also do a poor job handling the exposition. The background of Brolin’s character is doled out throughout the movie but the way it is presented is frequently confusing and when the truth of his criminal past is finally revealed it is both underwhelming and unnerving. It is shown that the character was careless and violent and instead of making him sympathetic it makes him look idiotic and creepy, the opposite of what’s desirable in a romantic lead. Labor Day suffers a similar problem with Winslet’s character. Just as the movie gets to its climax, the filmmakers stop to provide a lengthy flashback that reveals the cause of her depression. The backstory stops the momentum of the narrative and by dumping this exposition at such a late point in the story the viewer has no chance to assimilate it into his or her understanding of the characters. As the film rushes through its ending, the filmmakers cop out and give everyone everything they want, ruining whatever romantic tension was left.
Bottom Line: Jason Reitman is a good filmmaker but Labor Day is not a good film. Almost every aspect of this movie is fumbled and it is a sentimental mess.
Episode: #477 (February 9, 2014)