Direction by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire
It takes time to develop an auteurist style. Yet, over a relatively short career in feature films, Jason Reitman has shown a confidence in handling, and indeed scribing, deeply poignant tales driven by richly humorous characters. So meticulous as a filmmaker, Reitman has continued to display an admirable ability for exploring the unpredictability of life without ever falling in to the pitfalls of melodrama. Labor Day is a marked change from Reitman’s usual formula. Theatrical and artificial, it’s the first time the director has taken himself out of his comfort zone and based on the results, it should probably be his last.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Reitman’s story starts in rural America, where single-mother Adele struggles with unending loneliness and insecurity, while her young son Henry tries everything he can to fill the void left by his father’s absence. Enter Frank, a rugged convict who just happens to have a heart of gold and may be able to offer Adele salvation and a chance to be loved again.
Told through the golden hue of a mid-afternoon sun, Reitman’s soapy screenplay is wildly overcooked… literally. Having come in to their home and promised not to harm them, Frank attempts to gain Adele and Henry’s trust by proving himself a dab hand in the kitchen. What follows is a set of bizarre scenes that see Frank spoon-feeding Adele Chili after tying her to a chair, and Frank, aided by Adele, making the most sexually charged Peach Pie ever shown on the screen.
Such moments are meant to fuel the loneliness and longing that burn within Adele and Frank, yet Reitman never seems comfortable enough to concentrate on this. Instead he keeps his attention on Adele’s son Henry, who’s merely an observer to the action. This lack of focus infuses the film with a frustrating detachment between audience and character that’s never rectified. Our lack of connection with either Frank or Adele means the narrative, as a whole, feels totally obsolete.
As is to be expected, both Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin give as good as they have in the lead roles. Winslet assuredly conveys Adele’s isolation through her stark, yearning eyes; which hold more emotion than the rest of the film entirely. While Brolin brings a foreboding intensity to the film’s opening act, bathing the film in a Hitchcockian glow that is unfortunately diminished as quickly as it is started.
What’s truly upsetting here is that the real weakness is Reitman himself. His script, which plunders in to the realms of implausibility usually reserved for a Nicholas Sparks adaptation during the final act, never feels anything more than cloying or dull. While his direction equally feels unconvinced by the story he is telling; a notable lack of intensity, in a narrative that craves it, leaves the camera merely capturing the story as it plays out, without ever feeling invested in it.
Towards the end, Frank declares he would spend another 20 years in jail if it meant he could have another weekend with Adele… you’re likely to leave the cinema thinking you would rather spend 20 years in jail than sit through another weekend with them.