Published Sep 08, 2013After experimenting with edginess and an inherently challenging protagonist in the underrated Young Adult, populist director Jason Reitman steps back into safer territory with his adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel, Labor Day. It's a thematically apt choice, reiterating the basic tenets of self-imposed isolation and social alienation present in his first three films, but this time, there's a broad, almost twee classicism in style that softens any possible edges, leaving an ostensibly above-average, weepy melodrama.
This in part stems from the potentially ominous, but ultimately cornball premise, wherein Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressive, housebound single mother, and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), are taken hostage by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict. Initially, Reitman takes advantage of the unknown threat looming in the situation, framing everything through the eyes of the pubescent Henry who, unknowingly, decides to trust a bleeding man he meets in a department store.
The subtly employed score, which underlines the slow-moving, predatory camerawork that captures Henry's confusion and Adele's subdued anxiety when Frank forces them to take him to their home, builds a palpable sense of tension. It helps that the characters have already been established — Adele is someone that's more defeated by perpetual worldly disappointment and hurt than she is traditionally depressive — so we can appreciate the added dimension of frustration, acquiescence and reckless desperation that might go into her decision-making process during a time of crisis.
However, what becomes readily apparent when Adele, trying to defend herself and her son, says, "I'm stronger than I look," with Frank replying, "I don't doubt that at all," with a look of admiration and kindness in his eyes, is that this murderer isn't the villain the news reports are making him out to be. It's around this point that flashbacks start to take a stronger hold upon the narrative, showing Frank as a young man, working on a farm, where his first experience with love eventually turns tragic, which is the secondary rationale for his ability to connect with Adele in such a believable capacity.
Adele's gradual developments of trust and, in turn, hope, watching Frank teach her son how to play baseball and cooking everyone dinner, are ultimately the emotional backbone of the story. Henry, being a young man discovering his first glimmers of sexual awareness, is happening upon a Freudian age of competitiveness, which is presented, oddly enough, as an external concept brought about by a contemptuous female classmate projecting her interpretation of male proprietorship, suggesting that Frank will try to edge Henry out to keep his mother for himself.
This framework, being one founded on impossible romances and the inevitability of regret defining a lifetime of familial relationships, is quite tragic. The Labour Day weekend as a metaphor represents the end of summer and freedom, when kids have to stop playing and return to school, much like Adele will eventually have to accept that this unrealistically kind man, being wanted for murder and escaping prison, won't be around forever.
Reitman (despite trying to capture the intimate, tender moments without ever actually doing so) handles all of this with the sort of portraiture reminiscent of a Frank Capra film. Stillness and an overemphasis on wistful imagery leave a saccharine sensibility that denigrates the integrity of the intensely complex performances from Winslet and Brolin. It milks emotion with a middle-American, apple pie aesthetic and structure that ultimately sell the feelings intended, but at the cost of allowing the audience to come to its own conclusions.
There's just something too sanitized and manipulative about Reitman's storytelling — simultaneously exaggerated and aided by an omnipresent voiceover from an older Henry (Tobey Maguire) — to keep everything lingering in the way that Up in the Air did.
After wiping away some of the sweeter, more compassionate tendencies in his direction with the aggressive Young Adult, he's gone in a completely opposite direction in making a competent, even effective movie that's far too broad and accessible to continue stinging after the inevitable onslaught of tears dries up and the Kleenex has been disposed of. (Paramount)