Labor Day (PG-13)
Kate Winslet is a fragile woman who finds a surprising emotional connection with the escaped prisoner in Labor Day, a well-acted but overall uneven movie from Jason Reitman.
Narrated by an adult Henry (Tobey Maguire), the movie tells the story of young teenage Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother, Adele (Winslet), and is set, for the most part, over about four or five days encompassing a Labor Day weekend in the late 1980s. Adele is shaky, both physically and emotionally. Something has left her shell shocked and unable to quite deal with the world. Her husband, Henry’s father Gerald (Clark Gregg), has left her and remarried. As we see throughout the movie, he’s concerned about how Adele’s depression might be affecting Henry, but Henry is deeply attached to Adele, desperate to make her happy and to help her break through her sadness. He frequently performs the chores when they go out — depositing her checks at the bank or buying the groceries. On one such outing, they’re shopping together when a man, a little bloody and nervous, approaches Henry. Frank (Josh Brolin) needs a ride home, and maybe a place to lie low for a few hours. For reasons that aren’t particularly clear — Frank makes some vague threats but he isn’t armed — Adele and Henry drive him to their house and allow him to tie Adele up and then make dinner.
Frank plans on leaving when the trains start running but ends up staying, first for the night and then for the next day and the next, with Adele and Henry. Adele clearly forms some sort of kinship with him, even as she remains a little wary of him. Henry is eager for his approval, helping Frank out as he fixes the car and makes repairs around the house. He’s also afraid that Frank might eventually push him out of his close relationship with his mother.
All the while, the town is on alert to search for Frank, whose reason for imprisonment we see unfold in flashbacks featuring the heavy-on-foreshadowing romance between a young Frank (Tom Lipinski) and Mandy (Maika Monroe).
Doomed love, crippling sadness, shy romance, sun-dappled 1980s New Hampshire childhood — oh, Labor Day, you’re trying so hard.
This movie, which is based on a Joyce Maynard novel, seems to be shooting for some kind of tiny-lone-orchid-inside-an-eggshell blend of beauty, sadness and fragility. Sometimes, when Winslet’s character is allowed to be more than a bundle of tics and have a human moment, you get scenes that feel genuine and full of a messy, real-life-approaching tangle of emotions. A lot of times, though, there is something about all the preciousness that crushes the life out of the movie. There are quite a few scenes in the movie that somehow revolve around food. When Frank first gets to Adele and Henry’s house, he makes chili — it’s kind of a classic food-in-movie sequence, with camera focusing on the small ordinary details of the dish in a way that slows down the action and gives the actors a chance to build their characters through actions and expression.
Later, though, the movie repeats this, but with 50 percent more Hey, Check Out the Symbolism and 100 percent less subtlety in a scene where the three members of this makeshift family create a pie together. There are good ideas happening in the pie scene, with the characters and their arcs, but the movie executes it in a way that had me rolling my eyes and thinking “too much.”
The movie is also not well served by the narration. That we are looking back instead of watching events unfolding in the movie’s “now” is, I think, important to the story. And the Maguire narration helps to keep up the tone, helps to make the story feel like one told later, when someone is old enough to piece together bits of information that weren’t available at the time with memories of what they saw. But there is something about the way the narration ties the story together that gets in the way of the more organic approach the movie is trying to take with its characters.
Perhaps what’s truly wrong with Labor Day is that it is trying to do too much. The movie pushes the much-more-interesting story of Frank and Adele into the spotlight even though the story structure seems to want to make Henry and all his coming-of-age stuff the focus. Labor Day ultimately feels like some ambitious cheesecake recipe, one with a complicated crust and a few different sauces and toppings, one that involves precision attention to temperature and just the right amount of time in the oven. Maybe if everything had gone right, it would have been a light and silky treat, something with a perfect balance of flavors and textures. But here, clearly tasty elements (Winslet’s layered performance, the occasionally strong chemistry between Winslet and Brolin) get lost in a big mushy overworked mess. C+
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality. Written and directed by Jason Reitman (from the novel by Joyce Maynard), Labor Day is an hour and 51 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures.
As seen in the February 6, 2014 issue of the Hippo.