Adele (Kate Winslet) is a depressed single mother. She has isolated herself and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) from the rest of the town and rarely gets out of the house. On one of her monthly trips to the grocery store however they meet an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), who decides to use their home to escape the cops chasing him. He’s wounded his leg escaping and now he needs a place to lay low. In the meantime why not bake a delicious peach pie? And hey, why not since these two are lonely: Let’s play house for a while.
Jason Reitman is one of my favorite contemporary American filmmakers. In 2011 he released Young Adult, which in my opinion was one of the best movies of the year and certainly his most mature and accomplished work. Unfortunately, not only was that film under appreciated and under seen by audiences, but he followed it up with his weakest effort to date: Labor Day. This movie is based on Joyce Maynard‘s 2009 novel by the same name and is probably the director’s most joyless and “serious” work yet.
All his films before Labor Day could be considered dramedies (dramas with comedy), this one however is devoid of any humor. There’s not one (intentionally) funny moment throughout the whole film, which makes the experience very trying and tiring. The odd thing is that Reitman even casts actors with distinct comedic chops like J. K. Simmons (present in every single one of Reitman’s films) and James Van Der Beek. Again, unfortunately both are completely wasted here, and so is Tobey Maguire in his cameo at the end.
Aside from under-using great actors, Reitman also doesn’t seem to inspire his long time collaborator and fantastic cinematographer Eric Steelberg. The result is a bland (for Reitman’s standards) looking film which could be easily mistaken for any other generic drama. Labor Day feels sort of generic as a whole, if you don’t count Rolfe Kent’s constantly dark and brooding score, which is just so exasperating after a while. You really can’t keep a tone of tension throughout an entire movie, but that seems to be what Reitman is going for here. There’s too much music in Labor Day.
A lot of filmmakers underestimate the power of silence and absence of sound, which can be just as effective, if not even more so. It’s difficult to put your hand on what exactly Reitman is going for here. I applaud him for trying something different, but he clearly fails and ends up almost making an Oscar-baity film, bordering on melodramatic. It’s never schmaltzy, but it also doesn’t earn its character’s emotional catharsis. I don’t know if that’s a function of the novel, because I haven’t read it, but the film somehow just feels dishonest.
What I will say, is that I liked Reitman’s ability to create period settings, a big portion of the story is set in the 80s and there are flashbacks from the 50s. The acting is solid, although the kid seems miscast, but he certainly tries his best. The film has some interesting ideas about fatherhood and seems to ask important questions such as: What constitutes a good person? However I’m not sure that a serious drama and Jason Reitman are a good fit and I wish he just went back to dramedies with his next project, which I’m sure will be better than this.
5 out of 10