Prepare for an onslaught of jokes about Labor Day. Gags about pies, a ridiculously long weekend, and Tobey Maguire in voiceover mode again (see: The Great Gatsby). It’s hard not to smirk a little at writer/director Jason Reitman’s saccharine piece of Americana. It’s a film obsessed with extracting emotion by any means necessary, and Reitman is willing to forsake plot, characters, and common sense for those itty bitty tear drops.
Set in 1987, Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is a single mother living in a rural town with her 13 year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). While shopping for groceries a man grabs Henry and demands Adele take him to their home. Upon arrival Adele and Henry discover that the man is an escaped convict named Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin).
Reitman’s film is an adaptation of a Joyce Maynard novel but it sits comfortably in the Nicholas Sparks cinematic universe (Safe Haven, The Lucky One, Dear John). Two white people experiencing love at light speed, the past in a constant state of slow reveal flashbacks, and the comfort of a small town in America. Reitman only denies us a passionate kiss in the rain so Labor Day narrowly misses out on going ‘full Sparks’. There is so much agony in Adele and Frank’s separate back stories that pile up to the point of ridiculousness with accidental death, and multiple baby deaths (this body count alone is alarming in its deployment for the sake of emotional manipulation). Winslet is a trooper handling the aspects of depression associated with her character, especially the bouts of anxiety and jitters related to venturing outside the house. It’s a performance worthy of erasing any trace of Reitman’s soppiness but the damage is too severe.
Buried under a mound of sentimentality is Henry’s story that works well in the context of his adolescence. The character politely endures the aches of getting older thanks to an adept performance by Griffith. The arrival of Frank hits Henry like a sandbag full of testosterone as he fulfils the criteria of the ultimate male role model by showing off his handyman, cooking, and chivalry skills. Brolin is stoic as Frank despite working with slushy material. There’s tenderness to Brolin’s masculinity that fills the man-shaped hole in the Wheeler household and the actor is stern enough to maintain the mystique of his criminality. Henry’s experience overall is an okay B-side to last year’s coming of age convict flick Mud, but Labor Day devolves into a sappy outcome to Henry’s arc that’s prefaced by the persistent vocal commentary of the older Henry played by Maguire.
Eric Steelburg’s cinematography work is the saving grace of Labor Day as it perfectly captures the essence of bucolic America in the grips of summer; glistening sweat, sun-kissed landscapes and the cool comfort of the shade. The gimmicks of the 1980s are limited and the whole film has the rustic feel of an old cookbook that’s a nice comfort amidst the melodrama.
Life can be tragic in these little tales of romance but there is a fine line between earnestness and insincerity that’s crossed too often by Reitman in Labor Day.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies