Love's labour (lost?)
Being able to enjoy this movie depends on how well you can silence the cynic in you.
Whether you buy what Labor Day is selling depends on your reaction to the following scenario.
You’re a single mother who is shopping with her pre-teen son when an escaped murderer strong-arms you into driving him to your house, where he intends to hide out before making his escape.
Do you: A) Try your best to escape and/or alert someone around you that this is happening (especially since the convict isn’t armed with anything other than a smouldering look); or, B) Take him back to your house, let him bake you a peach pie and then proceed to fall madly in love with him?
If you picked option B, well then, Labor Day should be exactly right for you to pine, wring your hands, laugh and cry over. If you chose A, though, you are more than likely to find yourself increasingly annoyed by the movie’s unlikely plot turns.
The story revolves around Adele (Kate Winslet), a single mother battling depression, and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who has dedicated much of his life helping his mother manage her condition.
Into their lives comes Frank (Josh Brolin), a convicted murderer who has escaped from prison and needs a place to lay low. What starts out as a terrifying experience, however, soon becomes the turning point, as Frank reveals himself to be a gentle, caring man whose past is more complicated than it first seems.
Over the long Labour Day weekend, Adele finds herself falling for Frank, while Henry finally discovers the father-figure he’s been missing. Reality, however, slowly starts intruding upon them as the manhunt for Frank comes ever closer.
Call me cynical, but I think it’d take me a little longer than a weekend to fall in love with a convicted murderer, even if he did come in an enticing Josh Brolin-like package. And as convincing as the explanation for his imprisonment may be, I’d need a little more than a soulful expression to take it at face value.
Luckily, Winslet and Brolin do a great job with their roles, which is almost enough to keep the movie afloat. Winslet’s portrayal of a broken woman struggling to make it through life is painfully realistic, and deserves much more space than it is given here. Brolin, meanwhile, is low-key but extremely likeable.
In all fairness, I haven’t read the book by Joyce Maynard that this movie is based on, so I can’t comment on how good an adaptation it is (though from all accounts, the book seems much more nuanced than the film). I have, however, watched and enjoyed enough of director Jason Reitman’s previous works to be appalled at how far he’s strayed from his usual standards – if you came here looking for the smart self-awareness and dark humour of movies like Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up In The Air, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
In fact, Labor Day could have used a large dose of those qualities, if only to make the script’s unbelievable parts more palatable. From what I can tell, the book is more a coming-of-age tale of Henry, for whom that weekend with Frank proves to be a transformative experience. Maybe this was what attracted Reitman to the project – it fits in well with the introspective air of most of his movies.
Very little of that, though, makes it into the film, even though Griffith is a fine young actor. There is some clumsy narration by an adult Henry that pops up ocassionally, to tie the story together, but the movie overall seems more intent on pushing the romance angle.
And while the final third of the film does pick up considerably as we get drawn into the characters’ struggle to keep their new relationships alive, it often feels like emotional manipulation as the script hits us with heartbreaking revelation after heartbreaking revelation (I have to admit that I shed a few tears, but it really felt like a calculated effort by the filmmakers!).
If you are willing to put your scepticism aside and accept the premise of Labor Day, you might find yourself enjoying this story of three people who learn that love can come from the most unlikely of places.
If, however, you’d rather take your romance with a healthy side of reality, the film might prove to be a laborious experience indeed (come on, that pun was just begging to be used!).