Overripe romance makes "Labor Day" not much of a holiday
In writer-director Jason Reitman's "Labor Day," everybody is sweaty. In almost every scene, all of the characters look like they stepped out of the shower maybe five minutes ago. Is it because this weekend – a long three-day holiday weekend in 1987 – is particularly warm? Is everyone's air conditioning out? Or has the heat from the characters' hot, steamy metaphorical peach pie created its own warm front?
My theory? It's because all of the obviously talented actors and actresses in "Labor Day" are trying so incredibly hard to make this overheated melodramatic romance work. Pros Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin attempt to make something real out of the story's overripe ingredients, much like their characters soon-to-be-notoriously do with a bucket of peaches mid-film, but the final product smells more like cow pie than peach pie.
Based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard – most famous for her memoir "At Home in the World," which discussed her relationship with reclusive author J.D. Salinger – "Labor Day" tells the story of Adele (Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Crippled by depression ever since her divorce, Adele stays bunkered inside her house other than the occasional tremor-filled trip to the grocery store. Henry tries his best to cheer her up and take up the title of man of the house, but there are certain things he just can't do for his mother.
Unless Reitman's script wants to become "The Reader" as penned by Sigmund Freud (which it very awkwardly threatens to do on occasion, with Adele dreamily talking with Henry on a hammock about "longing … the desire for human touch"), it seems kicking Adele out of her depression is going to be a man's job.
Fate, apparently a fan of regressive gender dynamics, complies by tossing Frank Chambers (Brolin) their way on a trip to the store. He's a hurt escaped killer from the local prison who needs a place to lay low, and though he's asking, intimidating details – a subtle hold on the back of Henry's neck – make it clear he's not really asking.
For a while, "Labor Day" has a dash of tension as Adele, Henry and the audience try to figure out what to make of their domestic intruder (the score and the opening credits hint at an eerier movie). Before you can say Stockholm syndrome, however, the movie turns into an almost laughably overwrought romance as Frank the convict turns into the father Henry wishes he had, as well as the husband Adele needs to love her back to health.
Near the end, Frank even says that, "I came to save you Adele." That sound you just heard was Katniss and the princess sisters from "Frozen" all doing a face palm.
Reitman's fairly short but impressive resume is filled with sharp, biting and emotionally keen features ("Thank You for Smoking," "Juno" and most recently "Young Adult"). Adapting Maynard's book, however, he seems lost, allowing himself to be suckered in by the story's ooey-gooey "Bridges of Madison County" pap without ever finding the right tone. It's mostly just uncomfortable, constantly escalating and misjudged melodrama.
It doesn't help that the story would be more believable with Fabio as the male lead. Frank is purely a romance novel concoction, the dangerous convict with a heart of gold who, while hiding from the cops, becomes the family's handyman, cleaning the gutters and fixing the house. Then, at night, he performs his other, more physical duties as man of the house (all while Henry can hear from the next room. Once again, the tone is nothing, so it lands on humorously awkward).
There's even a little bit of bondage thrown in when he ties Adele up to a chair early on. However, it's not tense, sexy, romantic or anything; Reitman merely lands on stodgy and serious.
The film reaches its overheated climax when Frank – apparently a Food Network fan – and his new hijacked family make a peach pie. Reitman captures every juicy, steamy, gooey, messy, metaphorical detail of the food porn, but the scene falls on its face and feels ridiculous since the audience hasn't bought into the preposterously fast-moving relationship. It's a lot of supposed emotional heat without any actual heat.
Plus, Henry is involved in the scene, making the pie-making scene a culinary ménage a trois of sorts. It's … it's awkward (I had mental flashbacks to Denny from "The Room"), as is almost everything with Henry, who actually narrates the story as an adult played by Tobey Maguire. While a steamy romance novel takes place back home, he's going through a coming-of-age story of his own as he courts a young schoolmate who constantly force-feeds him into how he should be feeling about his new on-the-run daddy.
The cliché melodrama just gets thicker and sillier as the movie goes along. Frank's crime is slowly revealed via dreamy flashbacks (a crime which he is totally guilty of, not that this is a topic that Adele even broaches with her newfound "hero"). The neighbors, including a pushy woman with a handicapped son in a brief subplot that feels borderline exploitative, start snooping around, as well as the police. Understandably so, as Adele and Henry couldn't be more obvious if there was a giant glowing sign above their house saying "We're hiding somebody!" with a big neon arrow pointing down.
Winslet and Brolin try their best to breathe some humanity and life into the relationships and their characters. Both roles are near impossible, but any believability their illogical love story has is because of them. Brolin is especially good near the beginning, when he's intimidating and sensitive at the same time. Griffith is bland, but he's given a wet noodle of a character to play to begin with.
For his tonal issues, Reitman and his cinematographer Eric Steelberg shoot the film gorgeously, with the sun pouring richly and warmly into each scene, and the aforementioned Malick-esque flashbacks. With a better story, it could almost lull the audience into buying into its romance novel dream. But the plot never stops piling more overcooked melodramatic pulp onto a three-day whirlwind relationship that was hard to buy into from the beginning.
At least the pie looked good.
Theaters and showtimes for Labor Day
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