Labor Day film review
Labor Day (2014)
Kate Winslett, Josh Brolin, Gatlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)
Labor Day is the kind of film meant to be perceived as Oscar-bait. Let us examine the facts, shall we? This moody romancer features engaging leads in Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin as mature angst-ridden lovers lost in their embedded emotional turmoil. The subject matter combines weepy-eyed elements of single parenthood, fugitive-on-the-lam redemption, childhood growing pains and forbidden love. Writer-director Jason Reitman–the capable movie mastermind behind such critically praised fare such as Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult–gets the golden opportunity to explore Nicholas Sparks territory with his brand of decorative schmaltz. Plus, there is a who’s who of notable cameos sprinkled throughout this tenderizing tear-jerker. So with the film’s ideal design for potentially courting Oscar’s attention, why does Labor Day feel like an overwrought piece of pretentious pap?
Well, that is because Reitman’s big screen manipulative and synthetic soap opera has more gallons of sap stored in its trunk than a century-old Vermont maple tree waiting to be tapped. Relentlessly mush-driven and misguided, Labor Day mistakenly gives birth to heavy-handed hokum as it struggles to find its true heart behind the manufactured mawkishness. The intent on presenting a taut tale of loneliness and alienation set against a calming and picturesque setting to convey the intimacy and tension has its moments but Labor Day is too aware of its treacly tendencies for one to take this gooey-eyed fable seriously.
Based on the colorful novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day looks to explore the touching terrain that made previous kissy-poo cocktails such as The Bridges of Madison County and The Notebook so noteworthy for starving cross-eyed admirers of celebrated cinema saccharine. The soapy shenanigans could be dismissed given the genre of romantic dramas and their heightened sense of delivering the expected cliches of a conflicting love story. Still, the cheesy conventional approach for Labor Day feels disingenuous because it never rises above the wooden contrivances of a recycled romancer. The beef in particular lies with Winslet who simply plays it safe by regurgitating the same old role she’s revisited before–the frustrated housewife with soulful damage in such top-notch dramas as 2006’s Little Children and 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Labor Day even shamelessly borrows heavily from Ghost’s Patrick Swayze and Demo Moore’s pottery-making climatic sequence with a rip-off Brolin/Winslet peach pie preparation scene with the same kind of touchy-feely vibe.
Adele Wheeler (Winslet) is a depressed and withdrawn single mother trying to cope with being abandoned by her husband. It is 1987 in a scenic New England setting where Adele mothers her teen son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Actually, one can make the argument that Henry at times has assumed the role of parental overseer for his mother Adele as he is well aware of her saddened demeanor and naturally worries about her vulnerable state of mind. Basically, the mother-son co-dependence works both ways.
As the Labor Day weekend approaches, both Adele and Henry decide to do some shopping for the upcoming holiday. They soon cross paths with Frank Chambers (Brolin), a murderer and now escaped convict. Frank needs to lay low and hide out before the law catches up with him. Instinctively, the desperate felon decides to kidnap Adele and Henry where they are forced to retreat back to their home with him.
In the meanwhile, Officer Treadwell (James Van Der Beek) eagerly sniffs out the trail of the dangerous fugitive. But wait…is Frank Chambers the societal threat that he is made out to be? Perhaps he is actually a misunderstood individual with an unassuming amount of humanity inside his criminal bones? Could Frank in fact be viewed upon as the therapeutic solution to both Adele and Henry? After all, Adele cannot quite shake her isolation and needs to invest in loving and trusting a man once again. As for Henry, Frank is seemingly comforting to his lonely mother and he certainly could use a male figure in his life since no other man is around to offer guidance and other male-bonding experiences.
Is it worth the risk for Adele to serve up her empty heart to her wanted suitor Frank who is on borrowed time before the authorities catch up with him? Can Adele and Frank overcome their inner demons as they adjust their feelings for one another? Will Frank be another father figure that disappoints Henry should he somehow “go away” and abandon him like his old man before him?
Overall, Labor Day’s heart-tugging tactics play its predictable tune of automatic sorrow, forged earnestness and traces of condescension to the ridiculous hilt. There is never a semblance of solid heartbreak or contemplative heartache because we are busy trying to digest all the thinly veiled and distracting glossy glances and pseudo simmering tension that is plastered all over Reitman’s pulpy production.
One would think that daring measures would develop as cynicism floats in the air where a runaway convict such as Frank would present a deep-seeded problem invading the lives of a broken family. The film fails to realistically set up the jeopardy properly so that we can witness how the dynamics of a desperate man affects the wounded mother-son duo. All Labor Day achieves is its hastiness in catering to the affectionate muck without adequately bridging together the three pained and problematic personalities involved under a supposedly hostile roof. The doom-and-gloom showcasing of Winslet, Brolin and Griffith is decent for the most part. Still, Labor Day feels needlessly rushed in its claptrap coziness of starry-eyed despair.
As a filmmaker, it is admirable for Reitman to venture outside of his creative comfort zone. He could have even had fun dabbling in The Twilight Zone. It is too bad that Labor Day resembled a cinematic sleeping pill that tainted the audience’s erogenous zone.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: