by Kathie Smith
Jason Reitman has made a name for himself by directing sardonic dramas with varying amounts of comedic success. All of his previous films--Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Something in the Air, and Young Adult—feel like something between a good-natured jab to the kidney and a malicious dose of tickling, neither all that much fun. The good news with Reitman’s new film, Labor Day, is that you won’t have to endure the usual torture of misanthropic drollery. Setting aside the snark, Reitman admirably breaks new ground by committing hook, line, and sinker to fluffy romantic tropes with a somewhat meretricious premise. Despite expanding Reitman’s personal thematic palette beyond recognition, Labor Day’s coming-of-age nostalgia buried in an all-too-clichéd love story does little to broaden the skills of its talented cast or make any surprising cinematic waves.
Director: Jason Reitman
Producers: Michael Beugg, Steven M. Rales, Mark Roybal, Helen Estabrook, Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith
Writers: Joyce Maynard (book), Jason Reitman
Cinematographer: Eric Steelberg
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
Music: Rolfe Kent
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, Toby Maguire
Genre: Drama/ Romance
Premiere: August 30, 2013 – Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 27, 2013
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Faithful to the book by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is a portrait of a struggling single mother through the eyes of her impressionable 13-year-old son. Adele (Kate Winslet), a woman beset with debilitating agoraphobia, does her best to care for her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) after her husband leaves her for a woman who is less complicated. Henry, a sweet-natured kid, dotes on his mother with only a vague understanding of her loneliness and trauma. Their social inertia is interrupted when, on a rare but necessary trip to the store, Adele and Henry are coerced into harboring a fugitive, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who escaped from prison by way of the hospital where he was having his appendix removed. With the clock ticking, an injured Frank takes refuge in Adele’s house with dubious intentions.
Sadly, those intentions don’t stay dubious for long as Adele and Frank are revealed to be two misunderstood peas in a pod—victims in an unjust world. Frank extends his stay, staying well hidden from the police patrols searching for him, and suddenly Adele and Henry’s sad solitary life transforms into a warm and exciting family utopia. Frank cooks and irons, plays baseball with Henry, and of course bakes pies. In something of a centerpiece to the film, Frank teaches Adele how to make the perfect peach pie, bringing the sensual metaphors with food to a crescendo.
As Adele and Frank’s relationship organically develops, the movie slowly uncovers, through sepia-toned flashbacks, the source of Adele’s suffering as well as the accidental murder for which Frank was convicted. Both details, especially the latter, smack of stilted and superficial justification for characters that apparently need reasons for being complex. The fact that Frank is guilty in the death of his amoral wife is a cheap ploy for our sympathies and reeks of the sort of character assassinations used in the evening news. Wanting happiness for Adele, Frank, and Henry is a warranted compulsion in the trajectory of this narrative, but Reitman goes to great, unnecessary pains to explain why they deserve it.
The third act brings us back to Henry and reestablishes Labor Day as a gentle but slightly hackneyed coming-of-age reflection. Those summer days with his mother and Frank, holed up in domestic bliss, open a door to understanding some of the more nuanced rewards and punishments of adulthood. Unfortunately, the subtle touchstone in this young man’s life gets garishly translated into the art of pie making. Buying what Labor Day is selling is less about believable scenarios than it is about the tiresome dragooning of the story’s altruistic intentions. With the aid of both Winslet and Brolin, Labor Day launches as an impressive character study, but falls flat in its redundant fixation on labeling everyone into a corner, rendering flesh and blood, tenderness and passion with little more than sugar, peaches and pie crust.