Labor Day Review
Director Jason Reitman comes a-cropper with this unconvincing Southern melodrama starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.
In general, you've known what you're getting from Jason Reitman across his first four films. From Thank You For Smoking to 2011's Young Adult, the filmmaker, the son of Ghostbusters the director, Ivan Reitman, has been behind a quartet of comedy-dramas that have melded sharp-witted dialogue to low-key sentiment. And while your mileage may vary from film to film, all have been hits with critics and audiences to varying degrees.
Laudably, Reitman’s out to expand his wheelhouse: his latest, Labor Day, an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel, is closer to Douglas Sirk than Billy Wilder, something of an old-fashioned weepie with very little in common with the pop-culture gags of Juno or the cynicism of Young Adult. Unfortunately, the needs of the material never quite click with Reitman’s skillset, and the result, while not quite terrible, is a rather flat and insubstantial picture.
Set over the long holiday weekend of the title, the film centres on relative newcomer Gattlin Griffith, the latest in a recent run of rather wet coming-of-age leads, as Henry Wheeler, who lives with his depressed, borderline agoraphobic mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in a rather unspecific 1980s Massachusetts that could be virtually any time or place. A rare trip to the supermarket is interrupted by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who holes up in their home. Initially, they’re hostages, but as time goes on, something more than Stockholm Syndrome kicks in, and he becomes substitute father and husband.
With the film rarely leaving the Wheelers’ home, it’s presumably meant to be tense and claustrophobic, but Reitman never gets a handle on the passage of time in the film, and when paired with pacing only a few steps above glacial, it feels like Brolin’s houseguest has been with the Wheelers for months, rather than a few days. That could be Reitman’s plan, but there’s a disappointing lack of passion in the relationship between Frank and Adele that doesn’t gel with the endless-summer intention: the film just kind of sits there, being fairly watchable, but never doing anything wildly interesting either.
To be fair, it does pick up a little in the third act, with a genuinely taut final sequence, and a sparky appearance by Juno-ish newcomer Brighid Fleming that serves as a reminder of better days for Reitman. But an unsatisfying coda featuring a distracted Tobey Maguire as the older Henry only makes the story feel even more inconsequential than it already did.
Maguire’s flatness in those final sections is pretty indicative of the cast as a whole, as Reitman’s proven skills with actors seem to mostly be absent here: Winslet and Brolin, both usually so reliable, are mostly retreading more interesting previous performances here, and Griffith makes a bland lead. We’re all for filmmakers pushing into new territory, but when the results turn out as milquetoast as Labor Day, perhaps Reitman should stick to more comfortable territory in future.