I can’t remember the last time I saw a romantic drama as odd
and melancholy as this. I always enjoy watching Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin,
and I’ve been a great admirer of Jason Reitman’s work as writer and director (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air).
But Labor Day, which he adapted from
Joyce Maynard’s novel, is a curiously unsatisfying movie.
The story is told through the eyes of an impressionable 13-year-old
boy (Gattlin Griffith), whose father has walked out and remarried, leaving him
to contend with a mother (Winslet) who is emotionally fragile and barely able
to leave the house. The story takes place in a quiet New Hampshire town in
1987, where the peaceful environment is shaken by the news of a prison break.
The escapee (Brolin), a convicted murderer, holes up with Winslet and her son
and, to their surprise, turns out to be a compassionate fellow who wins both of
them over—for very different reasons.
The film is beautifully designed and shot, perfectly evoking
a small-town setting in the period just before cell phones and the Internet
changed the American way of life. Winslet is completely believable as a woman
who can no longer face even the simplest tasks, for reasons that are revealed
well into the narrative. Brolin brings both warmth and effortless authority to
his character, an almost impossibly perfect male figure, equally capable of teaching
a boy how to throw a baseball and demonstrating how to bake a flawless peach
Reitman effectively builds tension as the narrative unfolds
over a handful of days at the end of summer. But as we learn the unfortunate
backstories of the adult characters (including the boy’s father, played by
Clark Gregg) the film begins to sink under its own weight. The details that are
revealed in the final portion of the film add a somber, sorrowful layer to an
Ultimately, I’m not sure what the takeaway is from Labor Day: life isn’t fair? People
suffer for unexpected and unexplained reasons? A boy shouldn’t be forced to
grow up with only one parent? A real man ought to know how to change a tire? A
film as well-acted and crafted as this shouldn’t leave me wondering why I just
spent two hours watching it.