Nothing is more frustrating than when one of the most interesting voices in the business can’t seem to find something to say. Jason Reitman (and his screenwriters) has had the ability to show the honesty of the human condition, while being comedic about it. With the exception of Young Adult, he has taken who we would normally find as unlikable characters and finds the humanity within them, or at least enough to make us question our standards for people. Thank You for Smoking follows a chief spokesman for Big Tobacco; Juno, an unusual teenager who gets pregnant; and Up in the Air, an employer whose job is to fire people, but on his free time gives lectures as to why you should separate yourself from society. However, something about each of those characters had you coming back, whether it be their quirkiness, or their blunt honesty. That is not the case for Labor Day.
There is not a likable character anywhere within the frames of the film. As it progresses you are waiting for something to happen, a moment when you realize the character motivations, but instead Reitman continues down a path so alike to a Nicholas Sparks adaptation that it cuts deep. Based on Joyce Maynard’s novel (which I have not read), the film takes place over Labor Day weekend in which fugitive Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) hides out at 13 year-old Henry Wheeler’s (Gattlin Griffith) house along with his mother Adele (Kate Winslet). While this may sound like an exciting thriller, it quickly turns sour when Frank and Adele start having a romantic connection only hours after they meet.
Surely this is not the first time someone has romanticized a bizarre scenario, but the problem lies within the characterizations. It is explained in the opening of the film that Adele has severe depression that results in anxiety. She doesn’t leave the house but a couple times a month for groceries, and Henry takes complete care of her, including disturbingly giving her a coupon book of things he will do around the house. So when this claimed murderer comes into their home, Adele disagrees at first, but simply “gets over it.” She goes from being a mother who would do anything to protect her son to lenient, uncaring, and love drunk.
Which is where some confusion comes in as the film is narrated by older Henry (Tobey Maguire). It is a well known criticism that voice-over narration is a lazy tool for a screenwriters as it is used to tell but not show; I do not share that same criticism, but Labor Day makes it difficult to follow the throughline. While the movie takes place over a three day period, Maguire narrates as if more time is passing than there actually is. You expect voice-over to cover a larger amount of information that Reitman chooses not to show, but in the end, he could easily have shown it all. So when the subtitle comes up indicating a single day has passed you are left more or less disoriented.
Not to mention Labor Day can’t follow through with tonal changes. This has been a skill Reitman has been able to pull off well throughout his career with dramedies like Thank You for Smoking and Juno, but here the attempt is to make a straight drama, except the film does not know exactly what it wants to do. When you dissect the film, it is trying to tell two stories, but ends up actually trying to tell three. You have Henry who is reaching that pubescent stage of his life, resulting in a coming-of-age sort of tale; there is the Adele and Frank romance; and then there are these poorly paced flashbacks explaining to the audience Frank’s backstory and why he was prosecuted. Take out the flashbacks and the film is not only cut down 10 minutes, but it makes for a more interesting story about trust. The audience knows Frank is innocent (it’s predictable), so when his backstory is finally presented it literally makes no difference on an emotional level.
Tonal confusion should not be this bothersome, but so much time is wasted on a film that does not know what it should be that it is a chore to get through sequences. Labor Day does not get its footing until the third act when Reitman decides the film should be a thriller, and then it gets exciting. However, you’re waiting around for an hour and 45 minutes to reach that point, so you can decide whether your time is worth it or not.
As a fan of all of Jason Reitman’s work up until this point, Labor Day is a disappointing mess. With such beautiful cinematography by Eric Steelberg, there is no substance to leave you feeling fulfilled; it’s all sugar. The performances by Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are fine, but their characters are too watered down. It overshadows anything worthwhile from either actor. Films filled with fluff are hard to get around, but this is filled to the brim. An interesting concept that is left to be romanticized to please middle-aged demographics is quite frustrating. And even then, it seems too fabricated for them.
The Good: the cinematography by Eric Steelberg, the performances.
The Bad: character motivations don’t make much sense, or their decisions.
The Ugly: tonally bipolar, unnecessary flashback sequences, and just doesn’t know what it wants to do.