The passion-laced Labor Day reminds us that a rusty door with new paint is still a rusty door.
Director/Writer/Producer Jason Reitman is one of those unknown Hollywood guys whose body of work speaks louder than Reitman himself. Projects like Juno made Ellen Page an independent darling, while Up in the Air star Vera Farminga brought her the exposure needed to score the very good The Conjuring. Then there's Labor Day, an ill-conceived chick flick whose parts are stronger than its whole, and whose sweet center hides serious issues with its premise.
See if this makes sense: 1987 teenager Henry (Gatlin Griffith) and his divorcee/depressed mother Adele (Kate Winslet) are forced to aid/abet the escaped convict/murderer Frank (Josh Brolin), who happens to be kind of a nice guy. He ties mom up just so she can say he did when the police interview her, but quickly begins to bond with her and Henry, feeding homemade chili to Adele while she's trussed up. Soon, the trio are baking a peach pie together, with Frank putting on his best Julia Child face: "Pie crust is a very forgiving thing," he instructs. "You can make all kinds of mistakes, but you can't forget the salt." Soon, this three-day excursion into insta-family leaves Henry and Adele starting to reciprocate to Frank's quiet charm and dignity. They play baseball in the backyard and eventually decide to run away with Frank to parts unknown. The question is, can they escape before the police arrive?
Labor Day is beautifully shot by Reitman buddy Eric Steelberg, who emphasizes every leaf and branch in wherever this story is set - it's one of the film's strongest points, as is the pretty score by Composer Rolfe Kent. The problem centers around Reitman himself, who weaves an implausible tale while treating his characters like 12-year olds planning to sneak under the bleachers for a first kiss. Without giving away the details, our trio commits serious errors while planning to leave together, and the feeling we get from their stupidity adds another layer of frustration to what was weird to beginwith. You see, we know of no one - regardless if they're desperate for sex or simple belonging - that would readily allow a murderer to woo them as easily as Frank does. Granted, Brolin's rugged charm and honesty will captivate the ladies, but Reitman's early assumptions strain any credibility, forcing us to take too great a leap while Brolin and Winslet fall deeply for each other. We love our actors and their performances - even Griffith - but we couldn't help but think of the old adage of painting a rusty door that's still rusty at its core. With such a flawed premise, no performance can rescue this, providing all the proof we need for its January prison sentence instead of prime November or June placement.
If your marriage/boyfriend duties require your attendance at this film, we wish you all the best as there's nothing surprising once the plot gets going. You'll spot all the reveals a mile away; and much like the aforementioned peach pie, its delicious center can't keep us from hating the flimsy and undercooked crust. Labor Day isn't terrible, but it could have been so much more. It's rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality and has a runtime of 111 minutes.
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