Cinema Review: Labor Day

DIR/WRI: Jason Reitman  • PRO: Helen Estabrook. Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith, Nicole C. Taylor • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • DES: Steve Saklad • CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith

With Labor Day, Jason Reitman writes and directs an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard, continuing his shift from comedies to more serious fare. It’s a labour of love, but not entirely successful.

 

In 1987, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), convicted for murder, escapes prison and shacks up with Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffin). Fugitive Frank may be just the father figure that Henry needs. His manly presence may also help Adele recover from her long depression.

 

Adele has become a broken woman through the absence of her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg), the father of her son. Her hands shake, and she relies too much on her young Henry, who starts a coupon book as he plays her “husband for a day”. Adele explains that “there is another kind of hunger, a hunger for human touch, desire”. Clearly, Henry cannot provide that.

 

Frank’s arrival presents an opportunity to fill the void. Though he’s a convicted killer on the run, he maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He ties Adele up, but it’s only for appearance. Brolin, who dominates the film, is a menacing presence in his early scenes, but it turns out he just wants a family too. He starts taking on the chores not done in a man’s absence: repairing the car and the furnace, fixing that squeaky door, cleaning gutters and changing tyres. He sees that the guy selling firewood has taken advantage of Adele, leaving her short. He teaches Henry as he goes about this work and trains him in batting for baseball. It becomes clear that Frank should satisfy Adele’s hunger. He has come to save her.

 

Labor Day feels like it should be a thriller, but it descends into a dull romance with conservative conceptions of gender roles. It features an elaborate sequence in which the newly-formed family bakes a peach tart. As they put the pastry on the top of the filling, Frank asks Adele to help him to “put a roof on this house”, an unsubtle metaphor.

 

Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), made his mark with the witty Thank You for Smoking before making an even bigger impression with a series of tart comedy/dramas, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day is a beautifully crafted film, nicely shot, with Rolfe Kent’s atmospheric score giving the film an edge that complement’s Brolin’s work.

 

But Reitman maintains Henry’s first-person narration from Maynard’s novel, with Tobey Maguire providing Henry’s adult voice, and he develops Frank’s back-story with wordless flashbacks. Adele later recounts her history to Frank, but Reitman’s structure diffuses his focus across three main characters, and it takes so long for Adele’s voice to come through that Henry and Frank dominate, and Adele’s character lacks development. Winslet has little to do, and when Adele has her chance to make more of an impression, her character becomes even more defined by how motherhood contributes to female identity.

 

It could have added up to a nicely judged psychosexual drama, but Labor Day finishes pregnant with possibility and fails to deliver.

 

John Moran

12A (See IFCO for details)
110 mins

Labor Day is released on 21st March 2014

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