“Labor Day”, or “How a late-summer weekend with an escaped-convict murderer saved my mother and provided me with a father-figure so I could grow up to be Spider-Man”. Alright, just being a wise guy with the superhero reference, but Tobey Maguire popping up in the final minutes was surprisingly jarring—if only because I was ignorant to the fact that it was him narrating it all along! I guess providing the voice-over for “The Great Gatsby” earlier this year wasn’t enough. Similar results this time too—“Labor Day” is beautifully shot, but ultimately ludicrous. While watching it, I caught myself thinking, “Jason Reitman directed this?” This soapy thriller is uncharted territory for him, and it was a bad move. I enjoyed 2005’s “Thank You For Smoking” and 2007″s “Juno” enough, but felt they were both overpraised to a degree. “Up in the Air” got a lot of attention in 2009, and I am quite fond of it. Plus, 2011’s sardonic “Young Adult” was unjustly dismissed by bewildered audiences, leading to tepid box office results. Maybe that’s why Reitman played it so safe this time around, after his last feature’s disappointing reception. He’s only bungled things further though, because “Labor Day” is his worst film.
It’s 1987, and 13 year-old Henry Wheeler(a fine Gattlin Griffith)heads into one of those discount superstores with his tremulous, divorced mom, Adele(Kate Winslet, making the most of a bizarre role)only to come across a gruff, bearded man(Josh Brolin, hitting all the buttons he’s been asked to)who is bleeding from his mid-section and “asking” for a ride. When Henry approaches Mother with his imposing new “friend”, the whispered request becomes more of a demand. Soon, the trio arrives at the Wheeler house, and the man apologizes that he has to tie Adele to a chair. We learn that the convict is Frank Chambers, on-the-run after jumping out of a second-floor hospital window after having an appendix operation. And Frank’s no petty criminal—he’s in jail for killing someone. And he intends to hide out in the Wheeler’s rural Massachusetts home until it’s safe to escape aboard a nearby freight train line before the Labor Day weekend is over. And then we start getting all the backstories—grab your hankies now. Adele is depressed because her husband abandoned her after a series of tragic pregnancies turned her into a recluse, and left the family without a sibling for Henry. Gerald Wheeler(the prolific Clark Gregg)is later introduced with his mousey secretary wife(he cheated, of course), living across town. He sees Henry every weekend, but it’s signaled(with a freaking flood light)that their relationship is lacking. And the murder that Mr. Chambers committed was all a big misunderstanding—he didn’t mean for it to happen(and we’re eventually treated to that silly scene via flashback, as well as a look at a moment featuring Adele giving birth to a stillborn baby). So, what does Frank Chambers occupy himself with while at the Wheeler domicile? Well, he whips up an awesome breakfast, he fixes their car, and he does all the plumbing, electrical, and general maintenance handiwork around the home. He also teaches Henry how to throw a baseball and instructs Adele and the boy on how to bake the perfect peach pie(I kid you not). What a man! Is there any chance that Adele will start to fall for him, and that Henry will finally obtain the male figure he can admire? One guess.
This is really manipulative nonsense. The film is chuck-full of bilge that would never occur in any real-life scenario. It’s the kind of movie that gets labeled a “women’s picture”, but should be considered an insult to any reasonable woman watching it. This is Lifetime Network sentimentality gussied up by an Academy Award-nominated director(scripted by Reitman too, from a novel by Joyce Maynard). “Labor Day” will tell you how you should react constantly for 111 minutes. Henry’s dad? He’s a jerk for ditching Adele, and he doesn’t act like a REAL MAN. Adele? All she’s needed was a REAL MAN all along to knock her out of her funk—even if that man is a killer(but it was an accident?!). And Henry not only receives his father figure that weekend, but also manages to squeeze in his first time kissing a girl! Oh brother. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes or ears as this soap opera hurtled towards its closing scenes. This script never met a false note it couldn’t include. And why does a teenage boy have a poster on his bedroom wall from 1982’s “E.T.” in 1987? Just wondering. I know my childhood artifacts didn’t have 5-year shelf lives…just sayin’. Anything worthwhile? The three leads don’t embarrass themselves with the sub par material, and there is some strong support work(J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith). Plus, it’s well-paced and creates an admirable level of dramatic tension. But it’s also as mushy as the insides of that communally baked peach pie. And a cast like this deserves far better. So, it’s back to the drawing board for Mr. Reitman. And during this flooded holiday movie season, this is the one that you can let get away. Grade: C-
next review up: “American Hustle”