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USA 2013
Directed by
Jason Reitman
111 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Labor Day

Synopsis:  When single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her 13 year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) are approached by an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), lives are turned around forever.

Jason Reitman’s territory is middle-class American angst and his dryly comedic take on it has given us some loveable gems, Juno and Young Adult, being the jewel in his crown.

With his latest film he’s trying something different and, whilst all credit to him for that, the result is none too effective. Not that Labor Day is outright bad, it’s just that its various good elements (which largely come down to the basic story, which you've already had if you've seen the trailer, and the performances of Winslet and Brolin) do not cohere into a convincing whole, with Reitman unable to find the right tone for his material.

Taken from a novel by Joyce Maynard, the film is pitched as a romance between two lonely people carrying the burden of the years.  Rietman leaps straight into narratively-familiar territory with Adele as a winsome single mom, living in a poor-but-homey bungalow in some leafy rural township, evidently purpose made for Brolin’s caring Frank who, despite his felon status, is a supportively paternalistic figure. Frank is not only is good at manly activities like changing tyres and emptying leaves out of rain gutters but can also whip up a mean peach pie. As love stories go this one is decidedly on rails but even so, when after three days, Adele is packing up the house (rather incredibly into a station wagon) to run away to Canada with Frank and Henry to start life as a family, you want to cry out, “surely not!!”.  What would have made this film interesting would have been if Adele, who is already chronically withdrawn, had been portrayed as suffering from the syndrome in which kidnapping victims, a la Patty Hearst, identify with their kidnappers. No such luck. Labor Day, might have a slightly off-beat pairing for the genre but despite the early intimations of darker tones, it's love-conquers-all, all the way.

The lack of a convincing scenario is compounded by the fact that Adele and Frank’s story is seen through the eyes of Henry who provides the intermittent narration (well, in what appears to be a completely gratuitous casting choice, or a homage to his voice work in The Great Gatsby, Tobey Maguire does). This means that although we get idea, we don’t see it come alive on screen (this is one film where a sex scene would have been justified).

Reitman also runs alongside the main story a re-creation of Frank’s alleged crime, which of course, was all a big mis-understanding. As he is telling it to no-one (and Henry does not know it) it appears to be completely unmotivated and, indeed, for most of it I thought it was Adele’s story but couldn’t work out why Henry’s father looked like Frank. Then, towards the end of the film we get Adele’s story, which is quite poignant, but this needed to be further up the front to help with her psychological profile and explain the excessive emotional vulnerablilty that, at one level, at least explains her apparent rashness.

One could go on exposing the film's various smaller non-sequitors but in sum, one just wonders how there could be so many mis-calculations from an established film-maker with some exemplary works to his name. What’s the bet that he won’t be trying this sort of thing again in a hurry?




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