Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is a highly crafted movie, obviously the product of care and talent. It’s sensitively acted and beautifully designed and its greatest virtue may be the way it evokes the predigital age. In a way, with its gauzy textures and telling period details, it reminds me of Inside Llewyn Davis more than any other current movie. Like Joel and Ethan Coen, Reitman is a filmmaker with an immaculate sense of place and setting - every frame feels like an accidental work of art, an especially well composed snapshot from an old family album.
And, like Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s a portrait of a world about to change. At the time we didn’t consider 1987 especially fraught; we couldn’t know what was coming in the next decade. So while the events portrayed in the movie happened within the lifetimes of most of the people who will venture out to see Labor Day, it feels very much like a period piece. It feels like a story that could only have happened a long time ago.
It is based on and largely faithful to Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel Labor Day. It’s about a depressive single mother, Adele (Kate Winslet, in another excellent portrayal of a sad American), with a not-particularly precocious 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who ends up harboring an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) in her house over a long Labor Day weekend. In the book, the story takes on an almost allegorical tone as we receive it through the perceptions of Henry, who wants more for his mother to find what she needs than he worries about what might happen to her.
And so there’s a more pronounced tension at play here than in Maynard’s book, as we can see for ourselves the way Adele regards Frank and how his fatherly hand on Henry’s shoulder admits the potential for violence. But soon the balance shifts and it’s not about a home invasion but about a new family struggling to hold together in the face of outside forces. The film is both implausible and strangely familiar - families do come together in all kinds of improbable ways.
The film’s centerpiece is a frankly erotic pie-making tutorial that Frank supplies Adele and her son, enlisting them in an effort to save some peaches that might otherwise go bad. How you receive this scene is likely key to how you’ll receive the movie - you’ll either be dazzled by the most beautiful (on several levels) pie ever made or find it a risible echo of the pottery scene in Ghost.
Labor Day is not the disaster that some called it after it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it does suffer in comparison to Reitman’s finest work (Juno and Up in the Air earned Reitman four deserved Oscar nominations; Thank You for Smoking may be his best film). Maybe there’s a bit of fussiness that comes with the shift from comedy to a dramatic romance with thriller overtones, maybe it’s just that the story doesn’t transfer as well for the page as it might have, but Labor Day feels just a tad uptight and over controlled. It doesn’t swing the way Reitman’s comedies have. Maybe it’s a knack. Maybe it can be acquired.
Labor Day 86 Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire Director: Jason Reitman Rating: PG-13, for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality Running time: 111 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/31/2014
Print Headline: Captive hearts/Director, actors subtly ramp up tension of offbeat romance in Labor Day