Labor Day (2013) Film Review

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What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Jason Reitman
Based on the novel Labor Day by: Joyce Maynard
Produced by: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming
Running Time (in min.): 111 minutes
Language: English
Rating: PG-13
Official Selection of the 2013 Austin Film Festival

The American Northeast makes a rare, somber non-Jaws appearance in the newest film from New Hollywood master Jason Reitman. Working from his own adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard, Reitman’s latest represents a departure that, while surprising, is not unwelcome. In fact, though the awards-contending Labor Day is a love story in the classical sense with only the barest insertions of the searing, dark humor that marked the filmmaker’s Up in the Air and Thank You For Smoking, it’s in the catching us so off-guard that Reitman finds the film’s strongest quality.

The shock starts with the unusual mix of leads: Kate Winslet, as a 1980s divorcee on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and Josh Brolin, as the criminal vagabond who kidnaps her and her son (Gattlin Griffith) at a local grocery store. Winslet’s Adele has had trouble coping with her former husband’s (Clark Gregg, charming as ever) choice to find a younger spouse, and things at the former family home aren’t going so smoothly. Adele, a severe agoraphobe, can barely operate a motor vehicle, much less take charge of her son’s burgeoning adolescent curiosity and questions. When she and Henry, Griffith’s character, finally do leave the house, they run into a bleeding, limping, unshaven brute of a man played by Brolin – natch.

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Henry, in desperate need of a father figure, and Adele, in equal need of a lover, take to the soft-hearted Frank without consulting the local library for any information on Stockholm Syndrome or the like. As we hear from Tobey Maguire’s omnipotent narrator – a useless and see-through dramatic device that tries too hard to “adapt” Maynard’s style – Frank is the perfect man: a car repairman, a baseball player, a carpenter, and even a pie-maker on a nice day. To combat how quickly they let their guards down, however, Reitman digs too heartily into clichés, choosing to place “obstacles” in the way of the developing “happy family.” We are given ever-lengthening glimpses into Frank’s once-golden past, but his current situation as an escaped convict suggests the dark end to these laconic memories. Then there’s the local sheriff (James Van Der Beek, in a nice change of pace) who has a thing for Adele, which he veils by checking in with her less-aware son.

In an effort to build tension from these situations and the pesky next door neighbors (J.K. Simmons in a brief cameo and Grey’s Anatomy’s Brooke Smith), Reitman strays from the simplicity and beauty inherent in the broken-family’s narrative. As Henry, Griffith impressively plays an emotionally distant teen boy, already destined to repress and shield his emotions as a man – yet, somehow, without sacrificing the audience. Reitman has always shown a proclivity towards working with young actors, eliciting strong performances from Cameron Bright as Aaron Eckhart’s son in Thank You For Smoking and from the young people abounding in his excellent Juno (2007).

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Griffith shines, in particular, thanks to his emotional tetes-a-tete with Winslet, coming back strongly from a brief hiatus from the limelight. Adele is not the world’s most agential role, requiring the actress to grimace, lean on Brolin, and feel lousy about her lack of male company for a large portion of screen time. But as is typical for the Oscar-winner, she makes the most of Adele’s poor composure, and finds a dynamic partner in Griffith. Where the picture resonates most powerfully, though, is in the sensitive lead performance from Josh Brolin, who is bound for his best year since his re-breakout in 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Due for another lead in Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake later this year, Brolin turns in one of the most appealing and sweet performances of his entire career, ironically in a man formerly imprisoned for murder. Brolin and Winslet develop a romance that seems impossible sappy and silly at first, but neither actor loses their composure, and Reitman lulls us successfully into a place of doubt. It’s also the actors who rescue the film from Sirkian melodrama when Frank’s final, inevitable encounter with the law has unintended consequences.

If Labor Day dips and drags in places, it seems perhaps a waste to blame Reitman, who remains faithful to Maynard’s novel without being overly loving (a challenge that every adaptation struggles with, often with less success.) All the pieces are in place for this film, and for a first true drama, that’s not worth taking for granted. Style and substance merge here to create a lovely and sincerely felt piece of work, to which due credit must be given. Golden light and soft autumn shadows owe Reitman-regular DP Eric Steelberg – who turns in truly sophisticated mood work – a true debt. And as usual, the collective, respective composing and supervising work of the inimitable Rolfe Kent and Randall Poster is perhaps even more memorable than the film, reiterating just how impressive their work together in Up in the Air was. One only hopes that Reitman, whose personality and verve meant as much to the crowd who saw his surprise appearance with the feature at the Austin Film Festival in October 2013, keeps a little more of himself in the next one.

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