Labor Day (★★★)

labor_day_ver2Ever since it began screening at film festivals during the fall of 2013, Jason Reitman‘s latest movie Labor Day has gotten a pretty bad wrap. To be fair, it’s the worst film of Reitman’s impressive career so far, but to me at least, it’s still a decently good flick. Yes, it’s melodramatic and you can’t have a cynical mindset when you sit down to watch it, but Reitman does deserve some credit for taking this sort of sappy romance story and giving it a fresh coat of paint. While his normal procedure of more loosely adapting books into films would have paid greater dividends here since Joyce Maynard‘s source material doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with, but Reitman certainly does a better job than the novel probably deserved. Armed with another top notch performance from Kate Winslet, as well as a solid turn from Josh Brolin and an impressive bit of acting from young Gattlin Griffith, this is a well acted movie for sure. It’s also Reitman’s most visually interesting and stimulating project to date, so there’s certainly a sense of style on display. I realize that I’m in the minority here, but I think that Labor Day‘s good outweighs its bad, so I’m the lonely critic who’s recommending it to you…

Set mostly over labor day weekend (aside from some flashbacks and a flash-forward climax), our entry into the story is Henry (Griffith as a boy and Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry as well as the narrator), an adolescent who’s more or less taking care of his depressed mother Adele (Winslet). She’s been in a funk since the disintegration of her marriage to Gerald (Clark Gregg), but a trip to the store is about to change all that. Henry runs into Frank (Brolin) a wounded man seeking some help. Adele is initially against helping, but Frank makes it clear that they have no choice. Before long, he’s tied them up in their home, though it’s mostly for appearances. You see, he’s an escaped convict, though he says there’s a lot more to the story, as we’ll see in flashbacks. Frank was planning on only staying for a few hours, but soon he’s spending the night and Adele is starting to come alive with the man in the house. They know that their time is likely short, but they also are falling in love, so what are they to do? Things go a bit off the rails in the third act, but for a while things are pretty compelling, at least for me.

labor-day-review-1Though not an acting powerhouse like some of Reitman’s other works, this is still a film full of quality performances. Kate Winslet could do this role in her sleep, but she still nails it. She’s nearly catatonic in her depressed moments and full of life when she’s feeling in love again. It’s a real good performance, I must say. Winslet deserved that Golden Globe nomination…there, I said it. Josh Brolin is solid too, though he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. He lends the right amount of intensity to the part though, that’s for sure. The other heavy lifting is actually done by young Gattlin Griffith, who’s quite good and should have a nice career ahead of him. You really buy him as a confused boy growing up. They’re the core three, but there are plenty of supporting performances, including the aforementioned Clark Gregg, who’s always reliable, and Tobey Maguire, who honestly doesn’t add much. James Van Der Beek is good too as a helpful cop who could be trouble for Adele and Frank, while longtime Reitman collaborator J.K. Simmons shows up for a bit as well. The other cast members include Tom Lipinski (as young Frank), Maika Monroe, Brooke Smith, and Brighid Fleming, though it’s Brolin, Griffith, and Winslet who are the best of the bunch.

Most people consider Jason Reitman to be a better writer than a director (though I think he’s pretty great at both), though this time around his direction is far more impressive than his writing. His visuals are really lush and terrific here, aided by cinematographer Eric Steelberg, who’s doing career best work. The score is also quite good, with credit there going to Rolfe Kent. Reitman is exercising new director muscles, which is why his screenwriting here is a letdown. He stays too close to Maynard’s book, leading to some cringeworthy plot points. Especially towards the end, it almost becomes funny, which is not the intent. That being said, I liked the now infamous pie making scene that so many will giggle at. Maybe that’s me being weird, but I think it worked for the film…

In the end, Labor Day is far from an Oscar player (as evidenced by it being shut out), but it’s not the disaster that some have claimed either. It’s a romantic melodrama that could have been atrocious in the wrong hands. Reitman has done something different here, and I can appreciate that. I’m hopeful that he’ll get back to more of the type of work he’s known for next, but as an experiment, this was compelling enough for me to recommend.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!