Sappy romance novels have found a place in the movie industry for the last couple decades. Most notably, Nicholas Sparks has monopolized on that market with his never-ending love stories. Every girl loves them and every guy can’t stand them… Well, most of them (I’m partial to The Notebook). The unfortunate thing is, there are many great romance novels that don’t prey on the wants and needs of a younger audience. Fortunately, there are still directors that can turn those novels into great films.
Adele (Kate Winslet) has lost love and the love of her life. Her husband, Gerald (Clark Gregg) has left her and all she has left in the world is her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). After losing love, Adele became reclusive and saw no reason to leave her house. She was afraid of the constant reminders out in the world and afraid that other people would hurt her again. Rather than going out, she sends Henry to do run all of her errands, except for when they go back-to-school shopping on Labor Day weekend. The year that Henry was starting 7th Grade, Labor Day weekend changed their lives when they went to the local Pricesmart.
When shopping for clothes, Henry wanders to the comics and finds a wounded man named Frank (Josh Brolin). Frank tells Henry that he needs a ride and Henry wearily offers him one that his mother isn’t too keen on giving. When Adele reluctantly brings Frank to her house, it’s revealed that Frank is an escaped convict who was in prison for murder. Over the course of Labor Day weekend, Frank shows that he’s not a bad man and helps around the house. He fixes things, becomes a much-needed father figure to Henry, and begins to fall in love with Adele. The two people who couldn’t leave found love and they planned to run away together. However, with police hot on the trail, escape may be harder than they think.
Labor Day is an easy target for people to harp on. On paper, it may seem like a sappy Nicholas Sparks novel, but director Jason Reitman takes it in a completely different direction. You get to spend a lot of time with each character and their history and the lingering shots bring you into the romance. It may be an odd project for Reitman (Up In The Air, Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Young Adult) , but his adaptation abilities shine again with this intriguing tale of love and reclusive nature.
As always, Kate Winslet delivers another fine performance that she can add to her long list. As Adele, Winslet loses herself in a frail character who doesn’t interact well with the outside world. Her hands shake when she’s nervous and speaking to people frightens her. All she has in her small world is Henry and that seems to be enough for her. Her interactions with Griffith come off as genuine and he steals some of the show when he does things for his mother. Griffith conveys that his character understands why his mother is so sad, so he has to be the man of the house and take care of her. The love and affection that they display is beautiful and both performances are fantastic.
As good as Winslet and Griffith are, it’s Brolin who steals the show. Despite his intimidating goatee and muscular physique, Brolin’s Frank is a misunderstood man who is also without love. Arrested for killing his wife, we learn through a series of flashbacks that it was an accident and that he’s all alone in life. It’s after he meets Adele that he feels whole again and you can see in his eyes that he loves her. In such a short time, you believe that Brolin cares for Adele and Henry and wants to be a part of a family. At times, he can be incredibly frightening and powerful, but then he recedes into his caring demeanor. His emotions range from sadness to frustration and he exhibits them in spectacular fashions.
Jason Reitman has always had a knack for adapting great writing and making it even better, but he also did something great with Labor Day. The cinematography in the film is phenomenal and that’s all thanks to his cinematographer of many years, Eric Steelberg. Not only does the film look gorgeous, but the camera work focuses on the things hat matter. The close-ups reveal the hidden feelings of character and the lingering shots set the mood for what’s to come. In one scene, the three characters make a peach pie and the film focuses on Frank and Adele’s hands working together and touching one another in a loving way. The score also sets the mood and is very calming. You really get absorbed into this new-found relationship that goes beyond the average love affair.
Where the film faltered is with the flashbacks and the focus of the film. Each character has a sub story that defines who they are, but each of those sub-stories comes off as odd. Brolin’s flashbacks to his first marriage and the accidental killing of his wife are spread out and pop up unexpectedly. Winslet has a horribly depressing flashback that really stops the film in its tracks and yanks at your heart. As for Griffith, well, he envisions sexual encounters as a teenager and they come off as really cheesy. I get that he’s growing up and hitting puberty, but every time he thought of something sexual, it just felt weird. Those alternating flashes and the uneven narration by Tobey Magurie (as an older Henry looking back), really upset the progression of the film and take you out of it.
Labor Day has received a lot of unnecessary grief, as some have also compared it to a Lifetime special. In my opinion, that’s far from the truth, as there is a lot to enjoy in this film. There’s a lot of great depth with the characters and by the end of the film, it’s easy to understand where they’re all coming from. You may not connect completely, but not many people have been in this special situation. The acting is great, the film looks great, and the emotion is great. If anything, the film just needed to tidy up some sequences and create more “sexual” tension between Winslet and Brolin. For what it’s worth, I think that this is a pretty good film that’s worth your time at the theaters!
Labor Day Trailer