Jason Reitman. Once upon a time, when his name was attached to a film, you knew you were in for something interesting. In Thank You for Smoking, he took a despicable man and made us care about him and laugh with/at him even when kidnapped by a group who tries to kill him with nicotine patches. In Juno, he tapped into a youthful aesthetic and style of humor that seemed to resonate with everyone from your middle school locker neighbor to Roger Ebert. In Up in the Air, he blew everyone away with his incredible mix of style, humanity, and humor in what was easily one of the best movies of 2009. With Young Adult…well, Young Adult was pretty good, but it was a bit too cynical and cranky to capture the broad appeal of his first three efforts.
This overlong preamble is meant to provide some background for why I found Labor Day (2013) to be the most baffling movie I have seen in a long time. Sure, the story is straightforward, and it’s not exactly going to spark a Postmodern Neo-expressionist movement, but I have rarely sat through a movie that made me feel like I’d never heard the word “narrative” before. How did Jason Reitman, who made a cigarette lobbyist hilarious and affable, make the most overwrought, melodramatic, humorless movie that I have ever seen? How did this director—whose dialogue and style made me laugh throughout the emotional complexity of Up in the Air—create the most jumbled, over-dramatic, poorly structured pile that I’ve seen in the past two years of major cinema?
Labor Day, for those of you who are fortunate enough not to know this, is about a young boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith), whose fraught and anxious mother, Adele (Kate Winslet nooo), meets an absolutely charming convict named Frank (Josh Brolin whyyy). While the arrangement is initially done with no reserves so long as Frank doesn’t use his kung fu grip on Henry, Adele quickly begins to fall in love with Frank, because she is a Frail Woman with a Boy Who Needs a Father, and a Hardened Man can kill two birds with one stone in terms of hacking off those adjectives.
This whole plot, besides being misguided, is confused. Not confusing, although it is that, but confused. The movie—I’m assuming purposefully—builds an unreasonable amount of sexual tension between Henry and his mother. Adele is so clearly love and sex-starved that it starts to manifest in a desire for any kind of personal contact, and the only person who can provide that is her son. This really screwy love triangle subtext gets slowly pushed out by Frank’s presence, which oddly only makes that element more awkward. But even more confusingly, this quasi-sexual mother-son relationship is explored early on and then just left at the wayside, thankfully for my sanity and unflatteringly for the narrative.
Then, the movie becomes typical woman-needs-love and boy-needs-a-father stories, which are stale and only add to how dreadfully boring this movie is. We get it: Henry is a young boy who needs an adult to help him understand the world. And while that story can be captivating (see: Mud, which came out later in the same year), it doesn’t do much for the audience when it is your only focus. Nothing in Labor Day adds to that narrative; it simply uses archetypes in order to (fail to) eke out some drama-ine and acting-ite from the leads’ Chemistry.
Maybe that would be okay if Reitman weren’t so obsessed with being very serious about his very complex characters who are in a very dramatic situation. This movie has exactly one line that might make a situation lighter or cause a chuckle, but other than that, the entirety of the 111 minutes (or five hours, if I were to guess based on how long it felt) is without even a hint of levity. The entire movie contains some kind of background music, almost always with either tense strums on a string instrument or melancholic orchestral tunes. Like, yeah, I get that Adele is pretty miserably unstable, and it’s great that Winslet can communicate that subtly in a few opening scenes, but try to round that out or let it sit without some cavalier viola player emphasizing it during every wordless moment.
While Reitman does manage some subtle character introductions, I wonder how much he forgot about directing when he went to make this movie. Over-dramatic flashbacks, unnecessary voice-over, literally nothing entertaining—Labor Day has it all. Well past the point that Reitman has gone out of his way to make sure the toddler sleeping in the back of the theater gets what Kevin’s motivations are, there is a moment where Frank says police won’t recognize the fugitive because “they won’t be expecting a family”; we stare at Kevin’s flabbergasted face as a voiceover adds, “…a family?” Gee, thanks! It was really necessary to have that hilarious voice-over while Kevin stands there wide-eyed but tight-lipped. Really added to my paper about how Labor Day completely flipped cinema on its head.
The dialogue can sometimes be acceptable, but it’s not hard to assume the actors made this movie far more engaging on an emotional level (well, it’s manipulative, but it can occasionally engage) than most would with this script. The obvious is always stated, and sometimes the exchanges are hilarious, as I pointed out in regard to the voice-overs. My favorite was when an adult Henry (who we haven’t scene, but hear sporadically, and is voiced by…Tobey Maguire?) comments on the time Frank and him played baseball together: “Thing was, when Frank threw the ball…I hit it.” Wow, now I get everything that was only implicit before. Thanks for that.
Labor Day is just…so average, so bafflingly heavy-handed that I can’t help but wonder: what happened to Jason Reitman? If Stuart Gordon directed a feminist epic, then I still wouldn’t be as confused as I am knowing that Reitman directed this movie. While there is something to be said about a serious movie that tackles serious issues, you need to find issues worth being serious about, and be willing to do so without the musical and narrative cheats. You need something worth telling a story about, and you need to know how to capture it. Labor Day shows that Reitman is a flawed director, which is fine, but he needs to learn from his flaws, or he might have missed the heyday of his career already.