Hitherto, Jason Reitman has tapped a very deliberate furrow dramedy vein in his storytelling choices. He’s a quietly confident, if vaguely anonymous, director, and his greatest asset maybe a sure eye for casting. Buoyed by strong performers, he’s hewn repeated successes with potentially glib (Up in the Air) or emotionally difficult (Young Adult, not that anyone much went to see it) material. His good thespian sense doesn’t desert him with Labor Day, but in most other respects it’s a misfire. Without the insulation of humour, Reitman comes unstuck. He’s left high-and-dry, stranded by a clichéd script (he’s guilty as charged there, as the adaptor) that he over-extends in a self-important and ponderous fashion.
Reitman based his screenplay on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name. He was upfront about this being new territory for him, suggesting he might not get it right on this occasion. He didn’t, and he was evidently so over-conscious of what he was trying to achieve that he over-egged the pudding (or peach pie, if you will). This is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by the adult Henry Wheeler (Tobey Maguire, with Gattlin Griffith as his thirteen-year-old incarnation). He tells of the titular weekend in 1987 when escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) enters his and his mother Adele’s (Kate Winslet) lives. Frank, convicted of murder (flashbacks eventually reveal it was not an intentional act), quickly stirs passions in mum, a borderline shut-in who leaves the house once a month for supplies.
Adele gets nervous tremors whenever she has to drive or even enter a supermarket, and has been this way since the departure of Henry’s father (Clark Gregg). As the over-written narrative informs us, “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself”. Quite ripe. Henry does his best to fill the gap (he even takes her on a date – to see D.A.R.Y.L.) but what she really needs is a big hunk of gruff-but-sensitive manly man. Something Gregg never was, but which Frank embodies in his rippling white t-shirt and skill with every possible real guy task there is. And, like Steven Segal in Under Siege, he also cooks. Reitman proceeds to overdo the sensual world of Adele’s “hunger for human touch”; each cord Frank binds to one of her limbs is an act of foreplay, while the cooking sequences aspire to the rhapsodic passions of Ghost’s flagrant potter’s wheel.
Frank’s also the perfect surrogate father for Henry, steering him towards baseball rather than less-than-macho dance classes. Why, Frank’s even an enormously intuitive and understanding carer for a neighbour’s son, the physically handicapped Barry (Micah Fowler). So it is that Adele and Frank, inspired with passion, plan to head off to Canada to live in bliss. Henry, feeling like the cuckoo in the nest, his head filled with doubts by new girl in the neighbourhood Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), initially believes they are going to leave without him. The confluence of events that leads to hopes dashed would play out better if Reitman didn’t dawdle so much; it’s a nice touch not to know exactly who it was who set the cops on Frank, but the conspiring of circumstances is so acutely emphasised it could be straight out of a Zucker Brothers movie.
Everyone in the town is incredibly nosey, and everyone suspects Henry or Adele of being up to no good for the slightest possible thing. Cashing a cheque, not going straight to school, walking along a pavement unaccompanied, buying a razor, and putting boxes in the back of a car. It quickly becomes ridiculous (Eleanor even puts two-and-two together regarding Henry’s mum’s suitor but quite how she does this is mystifying). Most bizarrely, the whole purpose of Frank’s intrusion on their lives is so he can lie low for a few days. So what does he do (despite diving behind walls every time there’s a knock at the door)? He mends a wall (does he have a concrete mixer handy?), changes oil and wheels on the car, plays baseball in the garden, and cleans out gutters. All activities of highly visibility to any slightly curious neighbour, or one with their binoculars out to sneak a peek at Our Kate (it’s not often you have an Oscar winner in the area). Or James van Der Beek’s policeman (James still has a very longitudinal head, for anyone interested).
Reitman was quite possibly attempting to instil the flavour another journeyman director, once one of the best, Rob Reiner, imposed on Stand by Me. That ’50s-set tale was released in 1986, a year before the main events of Labour Day, complete with narration from a writer (Richard Dreyfus) looking back on a nostalgic but tumultuous experience from his youth. Where that film was soaked in bittersweet memories and an acute sense of period, everything about Labor Day is over-deliberate; from the lingering shots of record players and freeze-dried coffee tins to the posters of E.T. Regular Reitman collaborator Eric Steelberg inflicts a hazy autumnal reverie on every frame, copious shafts of delicate sunlight and wistful longing. The tone reeks of an awards-bid, but ends up as too much of everything. The only way this might have been carried is if Reitman had underplayed at every turn, but instead he digs for every ounce of fallow emotion. The flashback sequences, gradually revealing events (in particular the crime Frank commits) are particularly suspect in this regard; textbook oblique references glimpsed throughout until the final dramatic unexpurgated reveal (there are also insights into the past of Adele but they are less abstruse). One gets the sense Reitman has been watching Terrence Malick movies and thinking, “I’ll have some of that”, little realising his material is far too heavy-set and wholly ill-suited to such an approach.
What saves Labor Day from being a complete misfire is the cast. Griffith, unlike many a child actor, is able to underplay without appearing wooden. Brolin doesn’t exactly have his work cut out for him, but he does his best to modulate a walking talking erotic fantasy. Winslet is outstanding, and you’d swear in the moment of a scene that Adele is a fully-fleshed out person rather than a slightly reductive depiction of a woman who just needs a good man to make her whole again. The relatively upbeat ending suggests another Stephen King (reunion after all these years; The Shawshank Redemption) but by that point the artifice has defeated any vestiges of genuine feeling.
On this evidence, the best advice to Reitman, who has already developed a career far eclipsing his father’s in terms of quality, is to take a step back, take stock and regroup. He instilled far greater depth and understanding through the caustically brittle humour of Young Adult than he does here. Men, Women & Children is probably more comfortable ground in this regard, despite a should-try-harder title (based on another novel, but that’s no excuse) and a role for Adam Sandler (fast becoming a box office kiss of death). It also features J.K. Simmons, who hopefully gets more than screen time than his too few minutes in Labor Day.