A film review by Craig J. Koban February 6, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 111 mins.


Kate Winslet as Adele  /  Josh Brolin as Frank  /  Gattlin Griffith as Henry Wheeler  /  Clark Gregg as Gerald  /  Tobey Maguire as Older Henry Wheeler  /  James Van Der Beek as Officer Treadwell  /  Maika Monroe as Mandy  /  Brooke Smith as Evelyn  /  Tom Lipinski as Young Frank  /  Alexie Gilmore as Marjorie

Written and directed by Jason Reitman  /  Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard

Can a film that has a premise that’s pure melodramatic cornball nonsense be redeemed by solid direction and wonderfully realized performances? 

I think an argument can be made for “yes” in LABOR DAY, a new romantic drama that’s adapted from the novel of the same name by writer/director Jason Reitman, who seems  willing to abscond far away from his comfort window that he established with deeply sardonic efforts like THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and YOUNG ADULT.   On paper at least, LABOR DAY feels like one of those painfully obvious Nicholas Spark-inspired movie clones that easily caters to its genre fans' modest expectations.  Nothing here in the story feels particularly inspired, original or anything but predictable. Yet, Reitman is a crafty enough director to make this otherwise maudlin and disposable material work with his keen eye for observational details and for the manner that he generates thanklessly decent performances out of his stars, which all helps to make this syrupy material go down that much easier. 

Interestingly, the film takes place in 1987 during, of course, one scorchingly hot Labor Day weekend in small town New Hampshire.  We are introduced to a young teen, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who lives with his recently divorced and emotionally troubled mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), who beyond the grief of having her family unit turned upside down now harbors deep pains regarding past traumas that makes it nearly impossible for her to leave her home and interact with the community.  The only time she ventures out of her hermit-like existence is when she needs supplies, and one fateful day at the grocery store for her and Henry changes their lives forever.  Henry finds himself approached by Frank (Josh Brolin), a bleeding prison inmate that quietly demands that he and his mother take him back to their home for a place to lie low and recover for a few hours.  Now, why Adele doesn’t just immediately scream for help in a crowded store to get away from the unarmed Frank is beyond me…but…never mind. 

As news begins to spread of Frank’s escape the gravity of their situation begins to surface for both Adele and Henry.  Yet, despite that, they allow the relatively calm spoken and non-threatening Frank to stay with them.  Slowly, but surely, the mother and son begin to acclimatize themselves to their new visitor, especially when he extends every possible kindness to them during his stay there.  As Frank's good deeds mount up, Adele’s growing attraction for the stranger with a dicey past continues to simmer, and Henry too begins to see the con as a surrogate father figure, all while he’s dealing with his own physical and emotional changes as he hits puberty.  Alas, just when this highly secretive family unit begins to develop a mutually loving bond, it becomes increasingly more difficult to hide Frank from the mounting manhunt outside of their home, which inevitably comes to a head in the film’s final act. 

Okay, I’ll get this out of my system really fast: I’m never a quick sucker for these type of films, because I usually feel that they, for the most part, are riddled with stale conventions that have been used time and time again.  LABOR DAY contains many cheesy narrative clichés that have populated past similar romance films, not to mention that there’s no denying the outcome of this film once it arrives.  Furthermore, the film contains many laughable logical gaffes, mostly at Frank’s expense. For example, considering that he's a man that is desperately wanted by the law and wishes to avoid attention at all possible costs, Frank certainly makes himself visible outside of Adele’s home doing all kinds of chores, like cleaning her gutters, changing the oil in her car, and, yes, even teaching Henry how to properly throw a baseball…and all without a care in the world to anyone seeing him.   

Despite his dark past, Frank also seems too impossibly good-natured and faultless as a newfangled husband/father figure to Adele and Henry.  He’s too perfect.  He washes and waxes the floors, does the laundry and irons clothes, and, at one point, teaches Adele and Henry how to make the ideal peach pie in a sequence that could be aptly described as food pornography (with added sexual subtext thrown in).  It’s never fully explained why, for instance, Frank is such a whiz in the kitchen; he just is, mostly because the screenplay deems it to be a convenient talent for him to have to help him win over his captives.  I mean, no wonder these hapless people fall head over heels for this dude. 

Still, though, I never found LABOR DAY to be aggressively saccharine or ham-invested, at least as much as the recent crop of mediocre to awful Nicholas Sparks adaptations.  For the most part, Reitman's solid direction keeps the story afloat and helps it from capsizing under weight of its storytelling obviousness.  He manages to gives the film a low-key layer of visual interest (he captures the film’s period details rather well without drawing needless attention to themselves, which is not easy to do) and also manages to drum up ample tension in the film in terms of the escalating sense of dread that Frank will be found and apprehended.  There’s a late sequence in the film that’s quietly suspenseful, featuring James Van Der Beek as a polite, yet nosy officer that seems to smell that something is rotten in the air as he questions Henry and Adele.   

Reitman’s biggest coup is the casting of Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, who work minor performance miracles around the script’s more overt machinations and daft elements.  The two have an immediate chemistry on screen that helps make this material all the more endurable: Winslet is so achingly good at relaying Adele as a fundamentally damaged soul that longs for new love in her life.  Brolin, I think, has the trickier role, seeing as he doesn’t play him as a threatening brute nor as a squeaky clean softie that’s incapable of being brutish.  He somehow manages to find a happy medium between the two hemispheres: he’s a physically intimidating threat to Adele and Henry, to be sure, but Brolin also evokes a melancholic man of tenderness that has his own past regrets and anxieties that makes him – like Adele – a persona that longs for companionship.  Even in the most hackneyed of moments, LABOR DAY is on solid ground because of Brolin’s and Winslet’s grounded and credible performances. 

Do I recommend this film?  I guess so, but with reservations.  LABOR DAY may not be my idea of a strong career path change for Reitman, especially considering his past superlative efforts.  That, and there’s no denying the blatant Harlequin romance trimmings of this film that, in turn, tries to cross blend thriller, love story, and coming-of-age elements with mixed results.   With a lesser cast and director at the helm, LABOR DAY might have been intolerable.  Yet, Brolin and Winslet are so unreservedly strong together on screen and Reitman gets the smaller and more compellingly discrete details of the film down pat.  Somehow, they make this film agreeably watchable. 

  H O M E