It’s easy to see why Jason Reitman’s Labor Day was dumped into a late January release as opposed to the thick of awards season. The traces of what was intended to be high-minded awards fodder are still there — with its maudlin romance and its attempts at heavy emotions. But along the way, something just went wrong, and it becomes something more akin to a half-baked Stephen Daldry movie. Yes, it’s polished, but it has all kinds of problems. Besides Reitman, who adapted Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name and directed the thing, there’s not a single fault to point to.
Instead, we get a flood of small, poorly thought out decisions that pile up until the movie simply feels wrongheaded. It’s the stilted dialogue, the awkward plotting, the constant parade of contrivances and the mawkish attempts at manipulation that — added together — make for one bumbling film. I have to admit that I often have a soft spot for (or at least a fascination with) these kinds of goofy films — the ones that have no business getting made in the first place. And it’s probably true that if it weren’t for Reitman’s cache, Labor Day wouldn’t have been made (though it says a lot that a man has free reign to make just about anything and makes this).
The film takes place over Labor Day weekend in 1987, and is narrated by Henry (played as an adult by Tobey Maguire and by the young Gattlin Griffith for the bulk of the film). Henry is a seventh-grader who has some difficulties, which are not limited to puberty and his horribly depressed mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), who mostly stays cooped up inside their upstate New York home. One day, while out shopping, Henry and Adele are forced to harbor an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin), who needs a place to hide out after jumping from a second story window fresh from an appendectomy.
As the runtime unwinds and more and more plot gets stacked up on itself, the mother and son soon learn that Frank isn’t as menacing as they had feared. He begins to help out around the house, cleaning the gutters and changing the oil in their station wagon. (Never mind he’s doing all of this in broad daylight while the neighbors drop by unannounced.) He even knows how to cook, and teaches everyone how to make pie in an amazingly laborious scene. (The scene is so overdone that you can sense Reitman’s misguided pride in how it turned out.) You see, all Adele needs is the love of a real man — a man who can use a hammer, cook chili and knows how to throw a curveball. As hokey as that may sound, it gets worse, since Frank and Adele’s romance begins to feel like a case of Stockholm Syndrome. On top of that, there is this slow unveiling, via flashback, of the truth behind Frank’s crimes. Obviously, it’s all a misunderstanding and he’s an innocent man, right? Nope. Somehow, what he did is actually worse than I had expected it to be, draining all the romance and sympathy out of a film that truly needs it. Stripped of these things, Labor Day is more a curio. It is a strange, damaged little movie, devoid of any real humanity that never approaches the greatness it desperately wants. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher.