Directed by Jason Reitman and based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is a puzzle of a film.It is the story of Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) who has fallen into a depression after the breakdown of her marriage. She lives with her adolescent son Henry just outside a New Hampshire town and rarely leaves the house, leaving Henry to take care of household errands. Then one day, in a brave attempt to cure her agoraphobia they take a trip to the local department store and it is here that Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict from a nearly prison makes his dramatic entrance into their lives by hijacking their car and demanding they drive him to their home where he can hide until he recovers from an injury.
Labor Day is an extreme departure from anything else that Reitman has done, whether it be the acerbic wit of Ellen Pages Juno, the intelligent tale of redundancy and romance Up in the Air or the sarcastic Thank you for Smoking. What’s odd about this next one is that it doesn’t commit fully to any genre, dipping its toe into thriller, romance , comedy and even cookery program!
A beautiful opining sequence brings us through the countryside and into the town where Mother and son live and sets the scene of an idyllic lifestyle as the camera moves through the sun drenches trees. Meanwhile the incongruity of the soundtrack playing alongside warns of something dangerous afoot. Despite the palpable tension created when Frank first threatens Adele in the PriceMart clutching Henrys shoulder saying “Frankly this needs to happen”, the menacing atmosphere doesn’t last long. In a scene which foreshadows future romance, Frank ties Adele up in a chair but very slowly and gently and only, he claims, to make it look like she didn’t willingly harbour a criminal if he gets found. He then rustles them up a tasty looking chilli and before feeding it to Adele, blows on each spoonful. As the days pass with Frank apparently hiding out ,the escaped convict has filled a gap in Adele and Henrys lonely life- becoming her lover and surrogate Dad to the teenage boy. He bakes biscuits for breakfast, builds walls, fixes the furnace and still has time to coach Henry in baseball. It is as corny and sentimental as it sounds but the “piece de résistance” has to be a cringe-worthy scene where Frank teaches them to make a peach pie. Viewers will be squirming in their seats and reminded of that 90s embarrassment Ghost as our happy family simultaneously stir a bowl of wet peaches with their bare hands!
However for all its “pass me a bucket” moments, Labor Day, kept my attention for the most part. Kate Winslet in a performance similar to that of Revolutionary Road sails through it, perfectly transforming in character from a haggard and weary rejected wife to a fresh, loved up vision in a sundress. And can she carry off that sundress. Brolin is equally convincing – and alluring. Who wouldn’t want him tinkering around in their backyard in a grease smudged vest? Aside from the wonderful performances from the two leads and their striking on-screen chemistry, Labor Day is up to its ears in sentimentality and one would wonder if Brolin cringed when rehearsing lines such as “I came here to save you Adele”!
It should be mentioned that the story is told from the point of view of young Henry (adult Henry is the voice of Tobey Maguire) so apparently we are only seeing everything from his point of view. At the beginning in some genuinely moving scenes we see how Henry tries to make up for the fact that his Mother no longer has a man in her life. In a very sweet scene he presents her with a book of vouchers; one for a handy man, one for a dinner and even one for a date to the cinema. As Henry claims- it wasn’t losing her husband that “broke my mother’s heart but losing love itself”. In a scene with Henry and his estranged father (a decent believable performance from Clark Gregg ) we discover that Adele is a hopeless romantic, an idealist with expectations that her husband could not fulfil. It’s understandable then that the arrival of Frank, seemingly perfect in every way represents a fairy-tale knight in shining armour.
The heavy handed romanticism is interrupted at times with scenes that are truly gripping most of which revolve around the newly formed family’s plans to escape and head to Canada. These cliff-hangers, though slightly implausible (overly helpful policemen who won’t take no for an answer and an unnecessarily nosy bank manager) keep the viewer firmly on the edge of their seats and its impossible not to root for Adele and Frank.
There’s a couple of scenes of snappy comic dialogue featuring Henry and a potential adolescent love interest played by Miaka Monroe. It’s the closest we are going to get to Reitmans former self but unfortunately, the comedy seems crowbarred in and doesn’t work.
So yes, Labor Day has many flaws; cynics will no doubt hate its mushy cliché ridden storyline. It is also over long and descents into a generational epic in the style of A Place between the Pines with the unnecessary introduction of another actor playing a slightly older Henry and a Winslet reminiscent of the older Hanna Schmitz from The Reader. That said, Labor Day works but it really shouldn’t and that’s why is really is a puzzle of a movie.