Labor Day Review
Writer, producer and director Jason Reitman has told some incredible stories through his camera lens over the years. From “Thank You For Smoking” to “Up In The Air,” to “Young Adult,” he is able to conjure gracious, adult, comedic timing. He is also able to create genuine stories about adulthood. Sometimes, he’s just got a great story to cook up and he’s able to put real life into it. His latest film “Labor Day” was based off a book by Joyce Maynard. I am a little tempted to track down and read the book. Apparently, it has been a passion project for Reitman to get Maynard’s book on the big screen, and after viewing the final product, I really wonder what he saw in the story at all.
In 2007, Jason Reitman made “Juno” and I bet I am going to shock many of you when I say that it terrible and overrated and I did not enjoy a single moment of it. We will set aside Diablo Cody’s equally overrated, hipster, stupid script aside because that is a conversation for a different time and place. My biggest gripe with “Juno” was that Reitman glorified teenage pregnancy, by making a movie which nearly encouraged it. “Juno” is a movie that tells us that teenage pregnancy is a breeze and that your parents will support you and your boyfriend will turn into a knight in shining armor and your life won’t be put on hold at all. If you don’t want your baby, it’s okay, a miracle family will be right around the corner to take it for you. If we look at the real world, that’s not entirely true. If you are going to be a teen mom, you need to be responsible and you need to get your head on straight, otherwise things will never be sugarplums and rainbows. But Reitman just wanted to convey his fantasy message, knowing that “Juno” would mostly appeal to teenage girls. I bring up “Juno” only because “Labor Day” seems equally wrongheaded with its philosophy and message.
“Labor Day” takes place in 1987 in New Hampshire. We meet Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who lives with his mom Adele (Kate Winslett). We learn from voice-overs by adult Henry (done by Tobey McGuire), that Henry’s father (Clark Gregg) left them and that Adele sank into severe depression immediately afterward. Thus, sparking an over-protective, slightly creepy relationship between mother and son. One day, while at the grocery store, Henry comes across a man named Frank (Josh Brolin), who says he needs his help. It quickly becomes apparent that Frank is in trouble and he forces Adele and Henry to take him to their home. He ties up Adele and tells them he needs to lie low for the night and that he’ll get on a train later. It is revealed that Frank is a criminal who escaped prison, but Frank assures the family that there is more to his story than the media will deliver.
This all happens the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, so no train comes by the home. So Frank seems to have no other choice but stick with Adele and Henry. Frank then turns into the type of man every woman dreams of encountering. Frank fixes all the problems in Adele's house, he teaches Henry how to throw a baseball, he makes pie, its all a perfect fantasy. Also, Henry begins to warm up to Frank and really begins to look up to him as if he is a father figure and Adele and Frank are in love by Saturday evening.
I’d describe the film’s preposterous ending to you, but that might be the final nail in the coffin for most of you. Just as “Juno” glorified and campaigned for teenage pregnancy, “Labor Day” pretty much says that if you have severely depressed parent, just hook them up with the first charismatic jail breaker you can find, then they will live happily ever after. This is the biggest “soap-opera-turned-movie” to come out in awhile. It features a premise so phony that I could hardly believe the idea was greenlit by a studio, let alone published for a book. Well, let me back up, that is unfair to say. It could be true that the novel works better than Reitman’s film. Perhaps Reitman did not understand what he was trying to translate to screen, and so what is left is a boggled mess.
Logic and narrative flaws aside, I could not really tell the type of story Reitman was trying to tell. At one glance, this seems like a coming-of-age story for Henry, and then there is a great deal of emphasis made on memory. There is a big theory going around that Henry and Adele made Frank up, and that he was a figment of their imaginations. But the way the film ends, I am not sure I believe that. What is for sure is that this film is structured very poorly. Reitman has so many styles he wants to put on the screen, but none of them fit the story he is trying to tell. So he gets his already jumbled story to look as if it was shot by giraffes.
If “Labor Day” works for you, it will lie heavily on Brolin and Winslett. They work overtime to make real humans out of the characters they play. Their chemistry is phenomenal and if they were given a vibrant love story to play, they’d do incredibly well. I also got to hand to Griffith for making a likable, confused, curious youngster come to life onscreen. His performance is the glue to the entire storyline and he sells it hard. There are many good performances in the movie, which nearly make you buy into the hoopla of a story “Labor Day” tries to tell. But the story is so backwards and silly that I had no trouble seeing right through it.
“Labor Day” makes good work of its actors, and its technical merits are certainly impressive, but that is where the praise ends. Underneath all the good, there is a soulless story, painted so broad that I find it hard to care. I know Reitman is capable of astounding work, but sometimes his strange messages get the best of him. Such is the case with “Labor Day.”
FINAL GRADE: D