‘Labor Day’ (2013) Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival

Labor Day movie review
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith in Labor Day
Photo: Paramount Pictures

I don’t know where to begin with Jason Reitman‘s Labor Day. Adapted from the novel by Joyce Maynard, you could have told me it was a Nicholas Sparks adaptation and I wouldn’t have second guessed the statement. I can’t tell if Reitman is having fun with his audience and has actually made a parody of a Sparks adaptation or if he takes this schlock seriously. Either way, it doesn’t work.

To begin, Labor Day has something of an identity crisis as it’s unsure which character it wants to focus on. The voice over that introduces the film is read by Tobey Maguire playing an older Henry Wheeler, the young 13-year-old (Gattlin Griffith) seen throughout the entirety of the film, and son to Adele (Kate Winslet), a woman that has retreated within herself forcing Henry to be the man of the house.

Adele was left by her husband (Clark Gregg) when he couldn’t handle her depression and, though he was given the chance to leave, Henry stays by his mother’s side, recognizing her pain and doing what he can to help, including homemade coupon books that read “Husband for a Day”. But even he knows there are certain things a son can’t provide. In short, Adele and Henry need a man in their lives, and their need is about to be fulfilled in the most unorthodox of ways.

Shopping for school clothes just before Labor Day weekend, Adele and Henry are confronted by escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) at the local Pricemart. Bleeding and limping, he convinces them to take him to their house where he can rest for a spell and then be on his way.

I assume you can see where all this is heading.

Once home it doesn’t become the tense situation you’d imagine, even though the local news warns us Frank was in prison for murder and escaped by jumping out of a second story hospital window shortly after having his appendix removed. Everyone is a little on edge, but this isn’t your standard convict.

Frank begins fixing a few things up around the house, changing the oil in Adele’s car, cleaning the gutters, teaching Henry how to play baseball and, the real kicker, Frank is quite the chef. After treating Adele and Henry to homemade chili the first night and homemade biscuits the next morning, it isn’t until he makes use of a ripe bucket of peaches that Labor Day finally became nearly intolerable. After describing the process as if he was Fabio with a cooking show, all three of them start digging their hands in a bowl of cut peaches, mixing the ingredients with cinematographer Eric Steelberg getting his camera all the way in there. It’s a foodie ménage à trois and considering it involves a mother and son along with a convicted murderer, it’s more than a little weird.

As Frank hides out, a series of misplaced flashbacks begin revealing back-story on Frank and Adele while Henry goes out and randomly strikes up a relationship with some weird girl (Brighid Fleming) whose hair seems to be perpetually dirty and seems to fancy herself as some sort of wise, all-knowing oracle when it comes to broken families. Labor Day thrives on this kind of plot development and manipulation as the wrong thing continually happens or is said at just the “right” time. The third act is loaded with such contrivances to the point I could only sigh and shake my head.

This film can’t decide if it’s about Adele, Frank or Henry and Reitman can’t balance the wealth of emotions the three bring to the story. Obviously both Adele and Henry are longing for a male in their lives, but both for different reasons. Frank seems to qualify as savior for both, but at the same time the living situation is ridiculous. Then you add Frank’s story into the mix and not only does it feel entirely disingenuous, but the way in which Reitman uses flashbacks to add additional layers to both his and Adele’s characters you can’t help but feel manipulated, not to mention confused as neither seem to really be fully fleshed out or complete.

All that said, I can’t fault the performances or Reitman’s crew. Even though I found close to zero enjoyment in the film, Winslet (channeling her “Mildred Peirce” performance, updated for the mid-’80s), Brolin and Griffith are great, the latter especially. Griffith was fantastic in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling five years ago and here he proves he’s growing into a fine young talent with plenty of power behind his eyes.

Success is also found behind the camera with some fantastic camerawork and lighting from Steelberg, fluidly negotiating scenes throughout Adele’s house and delivering shots such as the one at the top of this review, almost appearing to be a still-life capture rather than a snippet of a moving image. In fact, the shot is better left to decipher without seeing the film, which is the movie’s biggest issue.

The problem isn’t the pieces, it’s the sum of its parts. The voice over by Maguire seems tacked on, used as a crutch for a film that didn’t get all the footage it needed to tell its story properly. Add to that the “convict with a heart of gold and a cookbook” nonsense and the tacky third act and I just can’t support or recommend this film.

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