How is it Jason Reitman’s Labor Day never became a factor in this year’s ongoing Oscar race?
Obviously, Paramount decided to protect it from the competitive 2013 field, releasing it in January instead of late December. But why? The Canadian-born son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman has displayed the Midas touch when it comes to the Academy, which has showered his previous features with praise in the form of multiple nominations for Juno and Up In The Air. (His Thank You for Smoking and Young Adult scored big with outlier critics groups, as well.) Now Labor Day doubles down with the Oscar-bred talents of Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin starring in an affectionately tailored adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s critically-acclaimed novel.
You would assume that something went wrong, which isn’t accurate. It’s easier to say something didn’t quite go right, and there’s a significant difference between the two.
Reitman’s tender, sentimental Labor Day is the kind of story you could nitpick to death. But if you buy into the emotions of longing and loss that Reitman’s trying to explore in this mature step up, you’ll forgive it’s obviousness and embrace the warmth of the first-rate performances.
Brolin plays Frank Chambers, an escaped convict who – while injured – approaches a young boy named Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) and his agoraphobic mother, Adele (Winslet), in a small-town department store. Frank quietly asks for help. When they cautiously refuse, he demands it, threatening violence (and Brolin’s one of the few actors who can sell both danger and the gentle caress of an understanding lover in the same movie). Frank ends up accompanying Adele and Henry back to their home where he plans to lay low over the course of a Labor Day weekend, escaping on Monday when the authorities have given up their search.
Our own Doug Norrie summed up the issue most critics are having with Maynard’s unlikely scenario, which is crucial to the acceptance of Labor Day as a film. “What wouldn’t have happened," Norrie writes, “is me taking him home, him turning out to be an escaped criminal, and then said man falling in love with my recluse mother. That scenario does not play out.” And he’s right. Out of context, the plot of Labor Day should pull apart like a tissue that’s gotten wet. I acknowledged this in my own mind, even as my heart was giving away to the relationship Winslet and Brolin carefully constructed, like master chefs taking the ingredients they are given and somehow whipping them up into an edible pie.
Reitman sets Labor Day in a distant past and a quiet corner of our country, implying through both that things are better, safer and more worthy of our trust. But little hints sprinkled throughout suggest menace. Maybe Maynard followed the beaten, troubled paths of Flannery O’Connor in her own book. Or maybe Reitman just felt compelled to spice up his narrative, because the threat of harm hangs over Labor Day, injecting an appropriate level of suspense.
You get the impression as Labor Day meanders, however, that Reitman’s less interested in his narrative structure and more engaged in how he can use it to explore the strong emotions that would surface should such a rare scenario play out. Henry, at times, comes off as jealous of Frank. Adele is practically immersed in the perversely sexual flames of passion simply being around a man once again. The way that Winslet longs for Brolin’s touch can be felt by the audience. There’s an undercurrent pertaining to lovers who are forced to leave (it plays into why Brolin’s character is in jail in the first place). In short, there are plenty of emotional components to appreciate in Labor Day.
But it’s improbable, and many audience members won’t be able to get past that. Which is unfortunate, because to nitpick the details means that you’ll overlook (and miss out on) some poetic observations about family, the father figure, small-town dynamics and the natural force of the human touch. As mentioned, it’s a mature step for Reitman, away from the playful comedy of Juno and Smoking, and toward some deeper, emotionally ambitious exercises. To cling to that pie analogy – because once you’ve seen the film, how can you not? -- Labor Day could have spent a few more “minutes” in the oven, but pockets of it will more than satisfy your cravings.