With Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek. Written and directed by Jason Reitman. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality. 111 minutes.
The buzz out of the Toronto Film Festival for Jason Reitman’s latest film, LABOR DAY, was not good. Then, in the rush of the year-end screenings for critics, where some dreadful films were shown for our consideration, “Labor Day” was withheld. This is proof yet again of screenwriter William Goldman’s famous dictum about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”
“Labor Day,” based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, both is and isn’t a piece with Reitman’s previous films. It lacks the comic flair of “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” Up In The Air” and “Adult Education.” It’s a serious romantic drama and people looking for quirky laughs were no doubt disappointed. Yet for those who have become fans of this astonishing young director, it is clearly a Jason Reitman film and one can easily see what attracted him to the story: central characters who ordinarily we would have no sympathy for reveal themselves to be complex human beings. Whether it’s the tobacco lobbyist in “Smoking” or the professional corporate hatchet man in “Up In The Air,” Reitman’s protagonists are heroes in spite of themselves, not because of who they are.
The story follows several days where Adele (Kate Winslet) and her teenage son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) play host to Frank (Josh Brolin) over the Labor Day weekend. Adele has been seriously depressed since her husband (Clark Gregg) divorced her. Frank is an escaped convict who has killed someone. Oh, and it’s a love story.
As time passes, we learn Adele’s story and also see her responding to Frank’s attention. Frank, for his part, is a curious murderer. He ties up Adele one day not so she can’t escape but so she can honestly tell the police that she was restrained while she was a hostage. The next day he tells her it’s no longer necessary. Instead, he shows her and Henry how to make a pie.
Reitman loves to give us characters we think we know and then show us we don’t know them at all. Adele is not entirely the victim she believes herself to be. Her husband makes every effort to maintain his relationship with his son even though he has remarried and has a new family. As for Frank, one gets the sense that this is the first time he is seeing the simple love and affection of every day family life. We don’t learn much about his background or the details of his crime, and he doesn’t try to make out that he was unjustly imprisoned. He’s a man who has crossed a line and has to deal with the consequences, yet does not fit into the one-size-fits-all image of a convicted killer.
Brolin and Winslet work wonders as Frank and Adele. He maintains a sense of menace while showing a soft side. Perhaps the killing was justified in his mind, but we see him not as a villain, but as someone in an impossible situation. People capable of love and respect aren’t supposed to be stone-cold killers. Winslet takes a part that easily could have been a dishrag–a professional victim whose life has been ruined by one man after another–and instead gives us a woman who had given up who suddenly gets the spark of life back.
Reitman lets the story unfold, even showing Henry in an awkward relationship with a new girl in town, without moving towards a big climax or easy thrill. This is a drama about people learning who they are and slowly working their way through situations of their own creation to get to where they want to be. Go to “Labor Day” looking for a story about two unlikely people connecting in the oddest of circumstances, and enjoy a filmmaker stretching his wings and trying something different. They won’t be mentioning “Labor Day” on Oscar night, but it is a 2013 film that deserved much more consideration than it got.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.