Reitman’s Labor Day Carries Dramatics to Term
Adele (Kate Winslet) doesn’t get out that much. But when son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) needs new jeans for school, he’s about to start seventh grade, she has no choice but to venture with him to the local general store, picking up the essentials just one of those things mothers do for their children whether they want to or not.
They bring home with them more than a few school clothes. The pair find themselves in the company of Frank (Josh Brolin), a tightlipped drifter with a mysterious puncture wound on his side furiously dripping blood. He tells them in no uncertain terms he’s going to be joining them for the night, promising to leave early in the morning at the first sound of a passing train which will hopefully take him on a journey he’d rather not talk about.
So begins Labor Day, Academy Award-nominated writer/director Jason Reitman’s (Up in the Air, Young Adult) adaptation of author Joyce Maynard’s best-selling 2009 novel. Making no secret of who Frank is, the movie nonetheless deftly balances past, present and future as it attempts to flesh each of its respective trio out, grounding them in their own worries, terrors, hopes and aspirations as it moves its way forward. Adele is a lost, somewhat battered soul looking for a spark to get her to overcome deeply rooted tragedy, finding the potential to maybe do just that in the arms of a man who might be more dangerous than he initially appears on the surface.
But as central as their relationship is the story being told isn’t theirs. Or, at least not theirs alone. Told in Stand by Me narrative fashion (via Tobey Maguire’s smoothly confident voiceover), this is ultimately Henry’s coming of age saga, his growth the core element around which everything else inside the narrative revolves around. It is his search; to find the answers behind his mother’s depression, for reasons his father Gerald (Clark Gregg) left to marry another, to make a connection with new girl in town Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), to learn the truth as to why Frank is on the run; that makes up the crux of the melodrama, these elements key in order to make sure every piece of the puzzle fits together as one.
That they don’t 100-percent is admittedly something of a disappointment, Reitman unable to balance all of the elements driving the film all the way past the finish line. There are times said melodrama does get laid on a bit thicker than required, while the climactic elements don’t have quite the emotional power or resonance I’m certain the filmmaker was aiming for. Things come to something of a perfunctory conclusion that feels oddly stale, making what happens not matter near as much as I wanted things to.
All the same, the director offers up some magnificent moments, the movie a rather enchanting melding of Sirk, Altman and Mallick that is as hypnotic as it is beguiling. Elements of Written on the Wind, 3 Women, Days of Heaven and Ghost can be found throughout, while the whole thing has a pulpy Tennessee Williams meets Larry McMurtry vibe I found fascinating. Its youthful reminisces are soulfully self-assured, while quiet comedic beats are delicately balanced with authentic parent-child interactions viewers of just about any age can on some level relate to.
Winslet is superb. She doesn’t cut corners, refuses to soften the edges, making sure Adele doesn’t become some sort of caricature of feminine regret and disappointment while at the same time not asking the audience to warm to her in ways that would feel forced or unnatural. The actress never apologizes for who this woman is yet allows us delicately, with no unnecessary embellishments, inside her core, making her yearnings for intimacy and warmth all the more affecting in the process.
Brolin is also good yet sadly his performance doesn’t have near the same weight as his costar’s does. Frank is just too ephemeral, too obtuse, and while flashbacks hinting at the why and the how are majestically staged and filmed (Reitman’s go-to cinematographer Eric Steelberg does some of his finest work) they don’t do so near enough to my way of thinking. I never got a full sense of the man’s pain making his blossoming joy at potentially finding a family willing to share their love with him not as meaningful or as weighty as it should have been.
Yet, for me at least, I liked Labor Day, and while far from the director’s best there was just enough truth to be found within its layers to make watching it worthwhile. Griffith’s performance is one I responded to without any reservations, his observational journey easy to become enraptured with. The movie has problems, and it can slip into drippy emotional excess at times, but overall its heart remains strong and true, and as such I’m eager to give it another look as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
Film Rating: 3 out of 4
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle