Kate Winslet as Adele Wheeler
Josh Brolin as Frank Chambers
Gattlin Griffith as Henry Wheeler
Tobey Maguire as Older Henry Wheeler
Brighid Fleming as Eleanor
Clark Gregg as Gerald
James Van Der Beek as Office Treadwell
Alexie Gilmore as Marjorie
Maika Monroe as Mandy
Dylan Minnette as Henry at 16
Tom Lipinski as Young Frank
Brooke Smith as Evelyn
Lucas Hedges as Richard
J.K. Simmons as Mr. Jervis
Directed by Jason Reitman
Your opinion of Jason Reitman’s fifth film and third adaptation–this one based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard–may depend heavily on whether you can accept how different an animal “Labor Day” is from Reitman’s previous four films, getting away from the humor and dark comedy he’s done so well and delving straight into heavy drama.
Narrated by the older Henry (voiced by Tobey Maguire) the film recounts the events that took place over Labor Day weekend 1987 when the 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his divorced mother Adele (Kate Winslet) encounter escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) in a supermarket. Who knows what he sees in them that makes him think he can convince them to give him a ride and then let him into their home, but so begins a long weekend of Stockholm Syndrome that one would lead into dark thriller territory. Except that “Labor Day” isn’t that movie, instead being a film that’s romantic and even tender at times.
Winslet’s portrayal of a woman still depressed years after a messy divorce is what carries the weight of the film because she always makes fascinating decisions as an actress, but it’s the film’s suburban setting and dark tone that it acts almost as the other bookend to her earlier film “Revolution Road.” “Labor Day” really is a three-handed film coming from the perspective of newcomer Gattlin Griffith’s Henry, who has to hold his own against the two far more experienced actors, which may one of the film’s first big problems. Overall, the film just feels dry and heavy, especially the scenes between Brolin and Griffith, and there’s a subplot of Henry’s interactions with an outspoken girl named Eleanor (Brighid Fleming) which seems unnecessary and then seems quickly forgotten.
Although Frank was jailed for murder and there’s a manhunt to find him, Brolin quickly stops feeling like any sort of real threat to the family? especially when he starts baking pies. That’s almost the exact point in the movie where the movie starts to lose its way and “jump the shark” – not like there was much going on before that. Obviously, piemaking must be some key point in Maynard’s book, but by then, the movie is alternating tone so much only thirty minutes into it that it starts to get distracting. By the time, the film slips into a routine pace, it’s one that’s slow, moody but also kind of dull.
Any of Reitman’s fans hoping for the humor of his earlier films won’t find a single iota in “Labor Day” – even Clark Gregg is playing things very straight as Henry’s father and Adele’s ex. Every once in a while, someone shows up at the home to check in on Adele, whether it’s J.K. Simmons as an amorous neighbor or James Van Der Beek as a concerned policeman. Their scenes are so short there’s not enough time to add any real tension about whether Frank will get caught or not.
One impressive aspect to Reitman’s direction is his cinematic use of almost dueling flashbacks to tell Adele and Frank’s back stories, which are done in very different ways. Adele tells Frank about how her marriage fell apart because she couldn’t have children through words, while Frank’s story is told more through images with Tom Lipinski striking an eerie resemblance to the older Brolin.
Even as the romance between Frank and Adele starts to bloom, Reitman still tries to mount the film’s suspense and tension. The only reason that’s even remotely possible is due to Rolfe Kent’s mesmerizing soundscape of a score, so uncharacteristically dark and repetitive from the light comic scores we normally hear from him. That score is one of the film’s greatest strengths for sure and at points, the music is way more interesting than what’s happening on screen. And that’s never good.
In the end, the romance feels just a little too perfect and the flash forward ending feels somewhat corny compared to everything that came before, which really isn’t a lot. It’s a shame since Reitman was clearly working outside his comfort zone in a different genre, while trying to stay true to the source material–and we honestly can’t hold that against him–but the Reitmans have comedy in their blood and that’s really where Jason excels as a writer and filmmaker.
The Bottom Line:
“Labor Day” could have been a beautiful love story. It also could have been a tense thriller. Trying to be both makes it tonally tricky and not an easy movie to love, yet it feels to be more the fault of the source material than it does Reitman or his cast.