“Labor Day is the kind of movie that almost feels like something produced for the Hallmark Channel, except with an A-list director and actors.”
by Ken B.
I wasn’t particularly interested in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day when it was released. It looked uniformly dismissible, and the positive reviews didn’t leave much of an impact on me. However, when I interviewed Mike McGranaghan, he offered a very impassioned defense of the film. It was strong enough that my curiosity was sparked, and after I got some more high profile films to get out of the way, I circled back and checked this one out.
Mike, we might have to go our separate ways a bit on this one.
I’ll first start by saying that Labor Day isn’t nearly as bad as everyone else says it is, but this doesn’t mean that the film is necessarily good. It’s a bit of a roller coaster in terms of general quality. It peaks after about 35 or 40 minutes, putters along at a lukewarm rate, plummets down at the start of the third act, and ends on a note so empty and sappy that the finale of the film could have been replaced with a shot of the elevators from The Shining pouring out maple syrup.
Labor Day is set over the titular holiday weekend in 1987. It’s a story about Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith as a child, Tobey Maguire as an adult/narrator), a 12 year old boy who is raised by his mother Adele (Kate Winslet). Adele and her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) split a while ago, but he stops by every Friday night with his new family to spend time with his son. Because of the events leading up to the divorce and those following it, Adele has become increasingly depressed, and relies on Henry to perform various household tasks.
One day whilst the two are out shopping, they encounter an injured man named Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) who asks them to drive him back to their house so he can stay there until nightfall. We soon learn the reason why: Frank is a prisoner, convicted for murdering his wife. He was temporarily moved out of jail to be taken in for surgery, and following the operation, he escaped from his hospital room (the injury was a result of a not-yet-healed appendectomy scar). Initially terrified, Adele and Henry warm up to Frank when they realize that he has changed his ways. It soon becomes clear that this man may be what they have needed – a companion for Adele and a father figure for Henry.
With its rather flat characters and conclusion, Labor Day is the kind of movie that almost feels like something produced for the Hallmark Channel, except with an A-list director and actors. Based on Joyce Maynard’s novel, Reitman, as well as helming the production, wrote the adaptation. I haven’t read the book, and if that is where the movie got its early promise juxtaposed against a catastrophic climatic buildup, I can’t imagine that I ever will. Indeed, the quality of the film itself is never universally good or bad. The movie goes quite well at the start, in the intense sequence where Frank first meets the Wheelers, but later on, where our characters act in increasingly stupid ways to execute an otherwise viable plan, the roadblack that comes along is nothing short of entirely foreseeable and mostly preventable. There, the only thing holding it up (and holding it up pretty neatly, I must say) is the strength of Winslet and Brolin’s performances. They give a good showing, as you would expect from stars of this magnitude. Griffith is often left in the dust of his more talented costars, but he’s not bad by any stretch. The supporting cast is never around enough to make much of an impression, but they all play their parts respectably.
To reiterate, it should be said that Labor Day is never at a total loss, but there are long stretches of time where the 111 minute film just moves perfunctorily. It starts with in the style of a well-made thriller, becomes a more mediocre character drama, and ends very disappointingly, unable to handle how it wants to wrap itself up. The main thing that the movie has going for itself, other than the performances, is that it’s never really boring. It features robust cinematography from Eric Steelberg, highlighting the warm colors of the house and the late summer exteriors that are very nice to look at, and it always feels like Reitman has control over the film – there’s always an even directorial hand, even when the tone is not so lucky. Labor Day joins movies like Instructions Not Included in terms of it being better for those who haven’t seen a lot of movies as opposed to those who have, but the former still has a fair amount of patronizing predictability and poor character development that the latter doesn’t.