Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Labor Day

Jason Reitman's Labor Day badly needed the tart comic touch that Diablo Cody brought to her scripts for Reitman's Juno and Young Adult. Labor Day is adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard. Reitman wrote the script himself, and the result is an earnest, gauzy mess of a movie that does little to hide the drugstore paperback nature of the plot. A middle schooler named Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) is being raised by his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in 1987 New England. Henry's father (Clark Gregg) has begun a new life with a new family and it's all Adele can do to make it to the grocery store. A scowling man named Frank (Josh Brolin) forces Adele and Henry to take him to their house one day, it turns out Frank is an escaped murderer who needs a place to hide. Reitman doesn't attempt to be subtle about the unmet needs of Henry and Adele. Frank teaches Henry baseball and basic car repair; he performs some fix-it work around Adele's crumbling house and preparing meals. By Frank's second night there he and Adele are sharing a bedroom.

 If only Labor Day had been honest enough to tell the story of Adele's reawakening instead of limiting itself to Henry's dazed point of view. Instead we get food. The scene in which Frank, Adele, and Henry make the most metaphorical peach pie in the history of film deserves to be parodied, and Frank's pronouncements about crust and temperature made me wonder if Robert James Waller came in for a rewrite. A more Adele-centered movie would have given both Winslet and Brolin something to do. Winslet looks unhappy and nervous almost the entire way, and Brolin is so ridiculously courtly right from the start that almost all the tension is sapped from the situation. Brooke Smith has a couple of good scenes as an annoying neighbor, but the moment where her wheelchair-bound son almost blows Frank's cover is something out of a TV movie. My favorite character, and the only one who speaks like a real person, is a would-be girlfriend of Henry's played by Brighid Fleming who gets a great, funny speech about Bonnie and Clyde. We're looking back on these events through the memories of the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire, mostly heard in voice-over), but Reitman never allows for the possibility that Henry is an unreliable narrator or that the flashbacks to the events that landed Frank in jail are anything less than 100% accurate. I don't know what happened to Jason Reitman's sense of humor, but Labor Day feels like the work of someone who thinks they need to grow up but who really just forgot to choke up on the bat.

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