Thursday, September 11, 2014
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Dylan Minnette, Clark Gregg, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek, JK Simmons, Alexie Gilmore, Brighid Fleming
Running Time: 111 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
There are two scenes in Jason Reitman's stab at an Oscar-friendly period piece, Labor Day, that had me howling with laughter. No, it's not the infamous peach pie scene, in which Josh Brolin's escaped convict romantically teaches Kate Winslet's single mom how to make a peach pie. It's ridiculous for sure, but what beats it is a long soliloquy from a manipulative teen girl that's one of the more hysterically out of place and overwritten speeches in recent cinematic memory. To say dialogue like this wouldn't come from the mouth of a girl that age isn't even doing it justice. It wouldn't come out of the mouth of any human being on the planet. Even in 1987. The boy listening to it has this dumbfounded look on his face the whole time and who can blame him? He'll later have a dream about her that's the second most ridiculous scene in the film and an embarrassingly bizarre depiction of an adolescent's first stirrings of sexuality.
Give Reitman credit for going way out of his comfort zone in adapting a Joyce Maynard novel, even if it's a place I hope he never goes again. And that's coming from someone who thought his last film, Young Adult, qualified as a darkly comic masterpiece. Apparently, enough people disagreed for him to attempt this mishmash of tones, which starts promisingly as a lurid crime drama before evolving slowly and painfully into what feels like a lightweight Nicholas Sparks adaptation. While featuring a pair of strong performances, it contains holes in logic large enough to drive a truck through, which is odd considering just how dull and formulaic the story ends up being. If this came from any other director it would probably be considered a decent if middling effort, but from a talent like Reitman, it's an unwelcome departure and an even bigger disappointment. If nothing else, we should at least give him credit for admitting it. The faster he puts this behind him, the better.
Adele Wheeler (Winslet) is a depressed single mom raising her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in a Boston suburb in 1987. After husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary, it been difficult for Adele to even leave house, with young Henry stepping up to assume the responsibilities of the household. As luck would have it, the one time a month the agoraphobic Adele can bring herself to the store, bloodied fugitive and convicted murderer Frank Chambers (Brolin) takes her and Henry hostage, formulating a plan to evade police while hiding out in their home. But he gets a little too comfortable, and so do they, with Frank becoming a sort of surrogate father to Henry and the husband Adele wishes she always had. After a while, the word "hostages" hardly applies as the stoic fugitive warms up to the idea of a new family even as he's haunted by a troubled past. But police are closing in, forcing him to decide whether his freedom is worth the potential harm that can come to this woman and her son.
The story is narrated by an adult Henry (a miscast Tobey Maguire) and is in a way presented as a coming-of-age tale centered around his journey and memories of that Labor Day weekend in 1987. Ultimately though, that portion is where the film falls shortest, taking a backseat to the dopey romance. At the risk of dating myself, there's little in the film that gives us any real sense it's taking place in 1987, or was part of anyone's childhood, save for maybe the period cars. There's also little in the way of establishing the setting which we're lead to infer is a Massachusetts suburb primarily because of Frank's Red Sox cap and little else. After the standoff start one would expect from a fugitive taking hostages, he settles into the role of cook, handyman, electrician, dance instructor, husband and father. For Henry he's a more than suitable replacement for the dad who walked out on him while Adele's sees as a potential lover rather than a dangerous criminal almost right from the start.
Many of the film's problems stem from Frank being such a great guy that there's basically no conflict at all, aside from some really nosy neighbors. Everyone in town is bothering this kid about his mom, and not of out concern for her mental health, but because they're annoying and invasive. A supermarket clerk cross examines him about his items. Townsfolk show up at their door unannounced, and in some cases, even walk right in. And yet, Frank's been cleaning gutters and fixing cars in broad daylight without anyone noticing. Ironically enough, the one time everyone should have known something was up was when Adele and Henry are first abducted at the store, and none too subtly either. You couldn't imagine two more obviously petrified people not wearing shirts that read "HOSTAGES." But there is one rewarding sequence involving the unexpected visit of a handicapped child that does create some genuine tension and suspense with Frank's identity threatened to be accidentally revealed in a surprising manner.
Interspersed with the present-day action are flashbacks to Frank's past and the murder that landed him in prison. These sequences work and are some of the more visually impressive, but we know from the start Frank is no coldblooded killer, so while the scenes are engaging, nothing about them feel revelatory. Winslet and Brolin are fine in their roles, with Brolin the clear standout. But you could probably name half a dozen or more of their performances that are better, if only because the material was. Gattlin Griffith is strong too, except when he's dragged down in scenes with the aforementioned girl (played by Brighid Fleming), which force him to react to the unreactable.
Everything completely collapses in the third act when a character figures out information they couldn't possibly know and what started as a fugitive on the run story recalling A Perfect World or The Fugitive deteriorates into The Notebook. James Van Der Beek appears as a cop, and maybe the only smart character. Too bad even he's wasted when we realize Reitman was more interested in settling into a weepie love story. Maynard's source material is just too stilted and reserved for a filmmaker of his type. He needs that contemporary humor and a satiric edge to really excel. Here, he's handcuffed, dishing out a traditional period piece as is, without the benefit of being able to explore. Labor Day starts as something important with accelerating tension but by the end it's almost completely neutered, fizzling out as it approaches its final lap. It's one of those movies that seem enjoyable enough while you're watching only to discover afterward just how much better it could have been.