Paramount via Everett Collection
Three sleepless nights and a coffee-fueled morning after Labor Day, and I’m still waiting for the kicker. The reversal, the twist, the big reveal that Jason Reitman — a talented filmmaker and prodigious wordsmith who managed such sophisticated character material in each of his previous movies — wasn’t actually telling the story I understood it to be. That I missed something altogether, some nectar of honesty buried beneath layers of theatrical pie crust. Owing to the respect I have for Reitman, his starring players Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, and a few fellow film critics who saw beauty in Labor Day, I’ll keep on entertaining the idea that I overlooked the picture’s authenticity. But for now, I’ve got to give benefit of the doubt to my senses — hey, we all have deadlines — and concude: this movie is full of s**t.
This is no victimless crime, as Labor Day sets us up in the household of depression- and anxiety-ridden Adele (Winslet) and her 12-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), promising a tale we never get to hear. The film jumps right into the former’s struggles with stinging mental illness and what appears to be a blossoming Oedipus complex in the latter — in The Wonder Years-style narration delivered by a flu-ridden Tobey Maguire, Henry proudly affirms that his mother is his whole life: he gives her back rubs, runs her baths, takes her on dates, and asserts himself her ad hoc husband to eradicate the loneliness that cripples her so (Clark Gregg plays Henry’s absent father, a “Buck up, sport” type dad who lives across town with his “better” family). On one of their monthly outings to the Piggly Wiggly, or whatever — the film takes place in a 1987 that you’d swear was actually 1959 — Adele and Henry happen upon Frank (Brolin), a blood-soaked menace on the lam who makes tacit threats at Henry’s safety to convince the rattled mother to allow him room and board until he can make a spring for the border.
And then, of course, they fall in love. Once Frank is settled into Adele’s spacey Massachusetts two-story, he reveals himself the perfect man who fixes leaks, tends gardens, bakes pies, and whisks the shaken woman out of her decaying shell. It’s clear why she takes to him — Frank is a heaven-sent gender reversal of the Natalie Portmans and Kirsten Dunsts and Zooey Deschanels who have fallen from the sky to turn things around for their broken beaus with spontaneity and singing and hamster funerals and cupcakes. In Frank’s case, pies. I really can’t overemphasize the position of the pies in this movie. They’re everywhere.
Past the point of keeping Frank hidden from those pesky neighbors, it doesn’t really serve as much concern to Adele — or, far less forgivably, to the movie itself — that he’s an escaped con who threatened her son’s life in order to earn a place to hide from the cops. Labor Day is not interested in redemption or excuse for Frank; it goes so far as to insist that we’re wrong for distrusting him in the first place. But no. This guy, for all his redeeming qualities, is a problem.
Paramount via Everett Collection
Labor Day is even less interested in honing the authenticity of its other adult lead, Adele, who earns Frank’s attention for no discernible reason other than that she seemed vulnerable enough to con into taking him back to her place. After that? Guilt, maybe. A knight-in-shining-armor syndrome that keeps him attracted to such an open wound. Just as Frank lives up to the one-dimensional angelicism of the aforementioned heroines of modern cinema, Adele is the counterpart to their boyfriends. Vacant and passive, just waiting to be saved by people who have nothing going on inside of them other than the drive to play savior. On top of that, she’s got a pretty volatile emotional illness in full swing. But it’s nothing love can’t cure, right?
With so much wrong to cover in regards to the movie’s central love story, I haven’t even gotten to Henry yet: the good-natured, sexually curious middle schooler through whom the story is told. Although Henry at least has a real relationship with Frank, who stands in as dad and teaches him to play baseball, fix a car, and — of course — bake pies, every one of the boy’s interesting conceits that is teased by the movie gets tossed out in favor of… well, that’s the million dollar question. We’re introduced to Henry through what appears to be a complex relationship with his mother, whom he views in part as a wife — without payoff, or even exploration, this is just some odd and incomplete stuff with which to open a movie. His distrust of Frank is entertained, but discarded almost immediately thereafter. Just about everything that might serve as character work for Henry is dealt with in the film’s 3-minute epilogue. Spoilers: there are pies involved.
If it weren’t for the severity of the characters’ flimsiness, you might not risk an occuluar injury from all the eye rolls provoked by the ridiculous plot maneuvers this movie cranks out. We’re talking doors left ajar, oblivious bank tellers, and the idea that James Van Der Beek can be accepted as a police officer materializing at the summit of the film’s dramatic climax. All this, not to mention some atrociously goofy dialogue, feels like it was rescued from Nicholas Sparks’ waste basket — only in glimmers of Jason Reitman’s usual shtick through a loquacious tertiary character (Brighid Fleming playing “Psuedo Juno”) who institutes far more narrative turns than she really should are you reminded of whose movie you expected to be watching.
And these slight reminders might be why Labor Day is such an aggressive failure: it had potential. At the onset of the film, we thought we were diving into something juicy. When things get more ridiculous than you can accept, you convince yourself that it’s all going to pay off with an honest, deconstructive revelation. But three days later, I’m still looking for what I missed. The disclosure of the true activity behind the false, theatrical curtain. But there doesn’t seem to be anything there: just flat characters, an ill-conceived romance, dead-end arcs, and so many motherf**king pies.