Published Jan 30, 2014Over a hot Labour Day weekend, escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) imposes on a mother and son for a ride. The mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), too cut-off from the rest of the world to speak out, complies and ends up with Frank walking into her home, as her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks on with a mix of uncertainty, jealousy and relief.
There are a lot of small, calculated steps that Labor Day has to take in setting up this story: Frank can't be convincingly ruthless while forcing his way into Adele and Henry's lives, otherwise he couldn't become the welcome hero they end up seeing him as. But the film isn't so much concerned with the practicalities of this what-if scenario as it is in trying to find soul-warming moments in the unlikeliest of places.
At first glance, Labor Day is a welcome change of pace for director Jason Reitman, best known for Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air. Each of those films showed growing maturity and skill as a filmmaker, which is why it was disappointing that 2011's reunion with Juno writer Diablo Cody, Young Adult, felt so uninspired. It was as though Reitman was unsure of where to go from the Oscar-nominated, George Clooney-collab Up In the Air and was just spinning his wheels.
In fact, Reitman's latest film might be spiritually closest to Up In The Air. Where Clooney's character felt a longing for connection in a cold, disconnected modern world, the characters of Labor Day struggle to not suffocate in their folksy rural community of 1987. It's as if Reitman is providing the counterpoint to his own previous film but, perhaps predictably, the results are less sincere.
From its opening to a standout sequence of Frank baking a pie, the film is relentlessly suspenseful, desperate to be taken seriously, almost to the point of self-parody. Later scenes seem to disregard concern for Frank's criminality altogether. The changes that take place over five days feel jarring, and a director like Reitman, whose trademark heretofore had been a mastery of films with distinctive tones, certainly knows better.
Although Reitman laces this part coming of age tale, part grand romance narrative with some impressive directorial flourishes, it feels mostly counterintuitive. The gradual reveal of Frank's mysterious past seems like it might reward multiple viewings but the story reaches for the kind of high emotions that audiences tend to disregard once they're done with them. And though the poster for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in Henry's room alludes to other, more classic coming-of-age tales, Labor Day in indebted to later Spielberg movies, with a tacked-on ending that unfortunately overshadows and unravels the rest of its good intentions.