“They were two people who couldn’t go out into the world, so they made a world with each other.”
I’m always enticed by directors who venture out of their comfort zone. It’s easy to become fond of a filmmaker because of his/her genre mastery, but before long our dependency on his/her ‘one trick pony’ abilities are undercut by a desire for versatility. We want to see the filmmaker do more than only what they are good at, to swing for the fences or put a tunneled effort into a project that is totally unfamiliar. Sometimes, we want them to try and fail because the combination of valiant effort and failure is a stain that defines a filmmaker as opposed to tarnishing them. We as avid viewers respect a cinematic changeup, regardless if it turns out to be more of a sinker or a curveball. Trying something new is a challenge, but the results, whether positive or negative, are always worth the labor.
Saying Labor Day is a wild departure for Jason Reitman seems exaggerated, but those who fell to his graces after Thank You For Smoking and Juno will probably be surprised that a film so devoid of humor, so directly melodramatic, so unexpectedly tense, and so twilight tinted would ever be a product of the same individual as those social satires. Alas, that is how Labor Day measures up to Reitman’s earlier works. Based on a Joyce Maynard novel, Labor Day transpires over the titular holiday weekend and focuses on a young boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), who encounter an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) at a drug store. Exhausted, scared, and injured, Frank quietly demands that the boy and Adele take Frank back to their home and shelter him from the authorities. Adele’s confidence has fallen victim to a broken heart following a divorce with her adulterous husband (Clark Gregg), and her son has little protective power against the supposedly dangerous Frank, so they give in. Yet, Frank proves to be a soft man, supposedly innocent of the crime for which he was imprisoned, and before long he’s fixing up Adele’s house, playing catch with Henry, baking pies, cooking dinner, and stitching Adele’s tattered heart. In a fleeting, though loaded, 72 hours, Frank becomes invested in a family that oddly loves him in return, but the enveloping magic of circumstance can’t survive the hammering effects of rumors, accidents, and miscalculations despite the trio’s strongest efforts to lay the groundwork for a familial life together.
It’s hardly the strength of Maynard’s original story that navigates Labor Day, a mostly beautiful film that is far greater than it sounds when spelled out. Anyone could easily mistake the convoluted romantic plot for something conceived by the nefarious Nicholas Sparks, who lives among us with no shortage of clichéd, that-never-ever-happens-in-real life love stories. But the edge in Maynard’s broad tale is the attention to coincidence, the detail of confinement in both time and space, and the ability to develop characters that seem like they could theoretically be each other’s best match if they were tossed into one another’s life paths. Working double duty as screenwriter, Jason Reitman tells Maynard’s story plainly, leading us with a voiceover narration (courtesy of Tobey Maguire) and tightly setting the stage for the unusual turn of events that will soon unfold. The most impressive bit about Reitman’s adaptation is the distance he purposefully creates between his preferred cinematic voice and that of the script at hand. Even Reitman’s most grounded work dramatically, Up in the Air, doesn’t contain the same straight-faced-ness. Up in the Air looks for humor in the melancholy nooks and crannies of a life detached, and while Labor Day features similar thematic touchstones, like societal detachment, it knows better than to try and unearth comedy from it. Labor Day is inarguably a drama, a first for Reitman in both writing and directing departments, and a casually saluted success at that.
Reitman’s work is benefited by the two understated performances from Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin – one of his more surprising turns. Reitman’s knack for achieving strong against-type leads in his films carries through Labor Day, specifically with Brolin’s casting; a rugged, domineering, and somewhat reptilian monster of an individual definitely physically capable of the crime his character has ‘committed,’ but proving that it’s not in Frank’s make-up to do so aggressively. He’s calm and caring, handy and experienced, but life has tossed him a low, off-suit hand, and it’s in this vulnerable state that he encounters Adele, an equally withered person, who looks for solace in him much like he does within her. Sure, their romance is amusingly reminiscent of the ‘I Can Fix That’ relationship between Patricia Arquette and Dulé Hill in Holes, but Brolin and Winslet are terrific, honestly. They give Reitman a fundamental center for his melodrama, which he directs with elegance and confidence, crafting some beautiful moments and even some tense ones. Of course, Maynard’s ‘yea right’ love story lends itself to some eye-rolling that is unavoidable, but with all of Labor Day’s positives, it’s easier to just deal with the negatives.
The ending is surely where it reaches for lofty, date movie friendly feels, wrapped up sweetly with Maguire’s narration and a slow fade to black, but it’s a tiny gripe, especially when it’s easier to let it be and swing yourself into the saccharine nature of it all. Labor Day is still a wonderful movie, probably the worst of Reitman’s oeuvre but possibly his most impressive as a director, miles above a Nights in Rodanthe or the Lifetime Channel that the advertisements make it out to be (with that annoying Birdy song that was also cheaply used in the preview for Winter’s Tale).
Funnily enough, Labor Day will probably become that movie that plays in the early evening on one of the numerous Starz premium channels on a weekday evening and you’ll come home to find your mom watching it. And she will be loving it.
Review by Mike Murphy