“Labor Day” is director Jason Reitman’s latest offering, and his body of work includes “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air.” The serious, heartfelt tone of “Labor Day” is a first for Reitman.
Handyman supreme Frank (Josh Brolin) spends his Labor Day weekend with Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressed single mother, and Henry (Gattlin Griffith), her kind and forgiving son, after calmly asking for a ride from the store. He mops the floors, changes the motor oil, cleans the gutters, and cooks some delicious chili (Can I get that recipe, Frank?). In one weekend, he becomes the father Henry never had, and the husband Adele never had. He is the rock of the household.
By the way, he’s on the run, and his face is all over the news.
It appears successful when the film uses beautiful shots of suburban American scenery, sunlit woods and sleepy neighborhoods abound. Thank director of photography Eric Steelberg for that. Every shot is exquisitely composed for maximum detail, depth, and splendor.
But that’s just the cinematography; the story of “Labor Day” is where the gray area begins, and Reitman’s inexperience with drama pokes through.
Despite being a “hardened criminal,” Frank’s tougher side is rarely shown, drawing far too much attention to his gentle, compassionate, and handy side. While seeing the softer points of Frank is essential, it’s difficult to judge his true capabilities should push come to shove, and that’s likely when a quiet family harbors a fugitive. An opportunity for suspense is passed.
Then again, as Frank says time and time again, “there’s two sides to every story.” Maybe there’s no “tough” side to him. Perhaps it’s just the news and the papers blowing things out of proportion.
At one point, Henry pens a letter to his real father, Gerald (Clark Gregg), and walks across town to personally deliver it. On the first day of school. That’s one huge risk when you’re already harboring a fugitive. Is it too much trouble to drop it in the mailbox?
And the aforementioned cinematography? Most of it is spent meticulously capturing all of Henry’s bodily movements. Instead of feeling a light air of tension during a pie-making scene (and who wouldn’t with an outlaw in the house?), we gaze intimately at his hands caressing and working the peaches into a filling. His hands slip down Adele’s side. Their hands clench when he shows her how to swing a baseball bat. Sexy, no?
“Labor Day” is a drama that appears to take itself a little too seriously. Even with our suspension of belief, we find it silly how hiding a criminal in the home comes with so many tender moments in one weekend. So the question becomes: how much leeway are you willing to give the movie?
If you’re unwilling, then it’s safe to say you’re not the type of person who would like this movie anyway.
If you’re willing to be a little flexible, or enjoy the occasional romantic movie – and here’s the kicker – give “Labor Day” a chance. You just might be pleasantly surprised. You may be inspired. I know I was; now can I get that chili recipe?
This article originally appeared in Neon Tommy on February 2, 2014.