March 19, 2014 Leave a comment
It’s 1987, and Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is conducting the monthly shop with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) at the local supermarket. Adele is a borderline agoraphobe, and since her husband (Clark Gregg) left her for another woman she has become increasingly awkward and anxious, preferring to keep outdoor excursions to an absolute minimum. Her fears prove somewhat justified when her son is approached by an escaped convict — a murderer called Frank (Josh Brolin) — who demands to be taken home so that he can lay low for a few days. Despite the circumstances, and against all probability, they fall in love.
Jason Reitman has made a name for himself directing sardonic dramas covering complex subject matters such as teenage pregnancy and mental illness. His films have to date been sharp, witty and full of vigor, often but not always lent added energy by screenwriter Diablo Cody. Labor Day marks something of a departure for Reitman; an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, Labor Day is earnest where his previous films were aloof, naturalistic where his other movies have been idiosyncratic, and superficial where the rest have been satirical. It’s also nowhere near as good.
Much has been made of the film’s weaknesses, and in particular it’s bonkers preoccupation with food. It’s true, the dialogue is often laughably mundane and plums are discussed at needless length, but neither issue really gets to the heart of the core problem; it’s the film’s sluggishness that makes it such a bore. A heat-wave mentioned fleetingly in news reports explains why the actors are doused in sweat and apparently too tired to do anything but pant their lines, but it’s no excuse for such lethargy behind the camera. Reitman’s direction is as limp as his actors’ delivery, and the film’s yawning scenes — like all other signs of fatigue — are incredibly contagious.
It would be unfair to dismiss the film for being dull, however, and there are elements in it that are of undeniable interest. The film looks stunning, and cinematographer Eric Steelberg captures the cloying, inescapable summer heat beautifully. In its feverishness, the film gropes for themes not usually associated with traditional romantic dramas. There is an Oedipal thread running through Labor Day that is particularly unusual, with Adele explaining sexual love to her son, and Henry showing an unhealthy interest in the bedroom antics of his mother. Early in the film he explains that he wants to be a husband to her, and even goes as far as to create a book of coupons entitling her to acts of husbandry such as chores and maintenance. It’s bizarre, uncanny and just a little bit perverse.
Labor Day is an unconvincing romance between a depressed divorcee and a misunderstood murder that lacks both Reitman’s usual style and subversive substance. The film is too uncomfortable to be truly unengaging, however, and there is a strange fetor about it that prevents it from being completely unremarkable.