I’m a Jason Reitman fan. Young Adult made my Top Films of 2011, as did Juno a few years earlier. I consider Thank You For Smoking the best satire (by far) of the past decade, and Up in the Air was easily my favorite film of 2009. With a combination of wit, talent, and an eye for casting, the writer-director has produced some terrific films over the past few years. Sadly, Labor Day is not one of them.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day lacks Reitman’s usual flourishes or the trademark edge of the director’s previous work. Although competently acted and well produced, neither the director nor its stars (Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Clark Gregg, and Gattlin Griffith) can save the movie from trashy romance novel themes about the nicest escaped murderer (Brolin) this side of Mayberry and an implausible love story that is impossible to take seriously (but also not quite cheesy enough to laugh at or enjoy). It’s with neither malice nor spite, but with a heavy heart, that I dub the film the best produced Lifetime Movie for Women ever made.
As a son raised by a single mother I can understand what about the novel may have appealed to Reitman but the results are troubling at best. With no hint of his voice to be found we are left only with the story of an escaped convict taking shelter with a single mother (Winslet) so broken its impossible to see her making ends meet and her son Henry (Griffith) during Labor Day weekend. What starts out as a hostage situation somehow turns into a weepy romance whose end is all too easy to see coming. He even cooks, helps out around the house, and teaches Henry how to properly throw a baseball.
The script also gives us subplots involving Henry’s growing feelings for the attractive new girl in town (Maika Monroe) who speaks in less humorous Kevin Smith monologues which although occasionally funny the awkward speeches make little sense coming out of her mouth. There are also a handful of scenes involving Henry spending time with his father (Gregg) and his new family. Neither are given enough time to develop any further than basic foreshadowing that either could force the secret hiding in Henry’s home to be revealed.
While leaving the theater I overheard one woman remark that she didn’t know whether she liked the movie but it made her cry. Labor Day is the kind of manipulative tale Lifetime is known for. The film lacks the ability to reasonably make you can for any of these characters or the situations the find themselves stuck in. Instead it attempts to manipulate the audience while attempting to completely remove your brain from the equation. Is Labor Day is weepy, melodramatic mess designed (only somewhat successfully) to pull at heartstrings? Yes. Is it a good film? No. No it is not. (But it definitely could be referred to as a Laborious Affair.)