|Left to right: Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin|
The ultimate question to ask when considering director Jason Reitman's Labor Day is quite simple: Why? There isn't any shame in a director to experiment after making four highly successful, acclaimed films. But on a deeper level: why trade a winning formula to imitate what feels like the formula other people use to get Oscar nominations? The prospects make no sense despite two terrific leads and potential to raise Joyce Maynard's eponymous novel from romantic escapism into one of the contemporary, human stories that has made Reitman so enduring. From the trailer to the lack of Oscar recognition, what was this film really striving for? Upon viewing it, the viewer is unsatisfied and only left to ask "Why?"
It could largely come from the general set-up involving Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) being very sheltered characters. For reasons later explained, Adele has become reclusive and relies on Henry to be the man of the house. One day over Labor Day weekend, she decides to go shopping for supplies only to meet Frank (Josh Brolin): an escaped convict who fell out the window of a two story hospital. The polar opposite viewpoints isn't necessarily what gives this film a poor footing, but how it sets things up. Before leaving the shopping center, Frank reasons with Adele to give her a ride while having his hand on Henry's shoulder and saying "You need this."
The eroticism and romance that is supposed to be present never evolves from this moment. Even if Frank shows some hospitality towards Adele, what is presented feels like dominance. Frank is more concerned with not getting caught than romancing her. Even among baking pies and playing catch with Henry, all that is given is a selfish abuse of power. Adele is a feeble woman unable to fend for herself and Henry is too young to make a stand. Even if Frank turns into a metaphorical father figure throughout the story, his romance doesn't feel earned. His sweet nothings come off as blunt remarks meant to persuade more than attract.
Even with these elements, it does feel like things could have easily been fixed for the cinematic adaptation. Convicts and innocence has mixed rather effectively in the past. There is even a whole subplot where Henry imagines his housemate as somebody out of Bonnie & Clyde. Even then, mixing the forbidden romance with Henry's coming of age story (done in voice-over by Tobey Maguire) doesn't work because there isn't much to really dissect. By the end, Frank gets his comeuppance and Adele has more reason to stay inside. The romance feels more like a strained friendship with an abusive yet persuasive house guest.
The problem also comes down to chemistry. The lack of plot means that the attraction lies in the performances between the three central characters. Probably the worst of them is Josh Brolin, who seems blunt and free of emotion throughout the entire film. Even when he's asked to show compassion, it feels stagnant. His performance relies heavily on being this creepy, romantic type meant to attract older women, but he seems neither threatening nor sexy, which causes Kate Winslet's subdued performance to seem all the more baffling. At points, it even feels like they are just navel gazing instead of pitching woo. These two are dull together and it relies just as much on the performance as it does that Frank is ill-conceived in execution.
It doesn't help that structurally, the film also feels like it is pretty much meant to be seen as "Oscar Bait": a prestige director making a film with two prestige actors that relies on dramatic flair and is essentially a set piece to show off their skills. Maybe this is the reason that the film never feels honest and at times feels painful. The dramatic structure is there, but with no interesting characters to drive momentum, the passion is zapped out. There isn't any overacting in this film, but more a sense of laziness and reliance on uninspired camera shots and editing (Henry staring at the camera is almost always the third cut in each scene) to compensate. Worst of all, the Rolfe Kent score is tepid and its reliance on emotionally charged string compositions is painful, if just because of its blatant explicitness to what the audience should be feeling.
|Left to right: Brighid Fleming and Gattlin Griffith|
The big question remains why did Jason Reitman make this film? His entire body of work has impressively displayed the comedic humanity in contemporary culture in unique and exciting ways. His previous four films all feel essential and more lively than most of his competitors. They have brought some of the finest, most memorable performances of the past decade. He may not be the most technically impressive, but he boils it down to characters worth investing in. With Labor Day, he loses the comedy and a lot of the personality. It is fine that he made a departure into dramatic territory, but the grand themes that heightened his past films are lost here. It is mostly just an illogical romance with disappointing chemistry at the center of it. It feels inessential, which may be the biggest crime of all.
Labor Day is an unfortunate mess because it is a prestige director trying to make Oscar Bait instead of a character piece. It is more concerned with dramatic flair that it forgets to have complex, emotional connections. Even when it tries to make parallels between familial dynamics, it fails to feel like more than a heinous romance. It paints a poor image of anyone's sexual desires and lacks compensating that with good performances. There needed to be more here besides expectations that the audience would play along. In that regards, this is a huge insult to audiences who have come to expect better from one of the brightest filmmakers currently working today.