While wildly inconsistent and off-kilter with Reitman's previous scripts, Labor Day isn't anywhere near the catastrophic combo-breaker that some reviews have described. Based on the acclaimed novel by Joyce Mansfield, the film follows 13-year-old Henry and his depressed, agoraphobic single mother Adele through a long weekend in 1987, over the five-day Labor Day period. When an escaped convict named Frank inveigles his way into their home, he brings each of them out of their shell, but also threatens to create a rift between them.
With the way that this is delivered for the first half of the film, I was wondering how to review this film without using the word "moist". It plays out as a surprisingly solemn, semi-erotic potboiler. Kate Winslet's Adele is afraid for her safety for approximately five minutes, and then just very, very turned on by the presence of Josh Brolin's Frank. The sexual chemistry between the two is electric, but the film's trying so hard to keep a straight face that the audience will be the ones who start tittering and giggling.
The most risible sequence comes in a montage that plays out like a Brian Butterfield enumeration of all the sexy services Frank can provide. Sexy cookery! Sexy cleaning! Sexy DIY! And that's not all. Sexy baseball tutelage! Sexy elbow brushing! That's all, but more importantly, that's all one morning. There are summers that seem to last forever, and then there's poor pacing, and this feels a lot like the latter. As a result, sub-plots and plot beats that should land, like the sudden necessity to look after a young neighbour with a mental disorder and hope he is unable to tell on them for harbouring a fugitive, fall quite wide of the mark.
Reitman's major success here is that he manages to turn it all around. As laughable as the first half can be, it evidently does something right, because you suddenly find yourself caring a lot more than you thought you did. In part, this comes down to the decision to play up Adele and Frank's history enigmatically, with seemingly unconnected flashbacks intruding upon the present day foreplay for a long while before we get any context. Henry provides the throughline that brings things back around, and his perspective becomes steadily more important as he becomes more active in the narrative.
Young newcomer Gattlin Griffith gives an adept and understated performance, playing it pubescent and sensitive without ever over-playing what might have accidentally mutated into a Norman Bates, Oedipal sort of thing as he plays gooseberry to his starved mother and his unlikely new father figure. His actions and performance really ring true, even if his interactions with a precocious classmate (played tritely by Brighid Fleming) don't, and drive the third act into some surprisingly intense places. Frank's final gambit to elude the authorities unfolds simultaneously with a rare trip into public for Adele, and the cumulative tension perches you on the edge of your seat.
Labor Day feels somewhat hamstrung by its own source material. What may have worked in the novel doesn't translate quite as well on-screen, and you always have the feeling that there's a marvellous movie to be made by Reitman, about two people who can't leave the house for different reasons finding something in common, but this isn't it. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin play their hurried courtship very well, but their lustful interplay doesn't quite sell the conceit. Still, at least it wouldn't have been fair to use the M word in light of how interesting it gets towards the end. In the final analysis, this may seem soggy, but it's surprisingly absorbing stuff.
If you've seen Labor Day, why not share your comments below?
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch