Director Jason Reitman has gone straight. Labor Day is a melodrama that’s quite different from his usual style.
Jason Reitman is known for hip, edgy movies that have a biting wit. Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult have specific points of view on modern American life. They have memorable flawed characters. They have killer opening sequences.
Labor Day, set in a small New Hampshire town over Labor Day weekend 1987, has its flawed characters. But the story has no significant agenda/message. And its title sequence is standard and ho-hum. Reitman wrote the script, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.
Frank (James Brolin) is an escaped prisoner who chooses young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his divorced mom Adele (Kate Winslet) to hide him out in their home. Over this long weekend, Adele, a lonely woman who is beset with anxiety, finds comfort in the arms of this not-so-frightening convicted murderer.
Frank cooks! He feeds his chili (whose ingredients include coffee) by the spoonful to Kate. (He has temporarily tied her and Henry up so that, should authorities bust in, they would not suspect they were aiding and abetting the convict.) When a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) brings a basket of ripe peaches, Frank makes a peach pie with help from Adele and Henry. Yes, the pie making is sensuous.
Along with romancing mom, Frank is nice to Henry. He’s also nice to Barry (Micah Fowler), a handicapped kid who Adele agrees to watch for a few hours.
Reitman teases with flashback snippets of Frank and Adele’s respective early lives and episodes that made them the people they have become. As the flashbacks become more complete, so do the characters.
Of course, most of the film is a flashback, narrated by the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire). The actor portraying the young Henry, Gattlin Griffith, is impressive in his understated performance.
As authorities intensify their manhunt, Frank and Adele make a plan to leave town and take refuge in Canada. This decision leads to the film’s climax, which will not be revealed here.
Reitman’s effort to go mainstream is partially successful. He tells this suspenseful story well, but it moves very slowly at times. Should there have been more graphic evidence of Frank and Adele’s romance? Probably yes, but they wanted a PG-13 rating—more evidence of Reitman’s desire to play to the masses.
Sadly, Labor Day feels like a Lifetime/Hallmark movie with upgraded acting.