For the first time in his short but illustrious career, Jason Reitman struggles to both skillfully tell a story and motivate a cast in the sluggish Labor Day. Coming from a filmmaker who’s proven adept at realizing Diablo Cody screenplays (Juno; Young Adult) and adapting others’ works himself (Thank You for Smoking; Up in the Air), his third trip in the latter direction is surprisingly bland, especially considering the goods at his disposal.
Continuing Reitman’s streak of choosing appealing narratives, the 1987-set premise of damaged souls Adele (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Josh Brolin) connecting after a chance meeting under highly unusual circumstances, envisioning a new life together, and then having it inevitably dashed is an intriguing one. In the source novel by Joyce Maynard, it may very well have played out strong, but the execution under Reitman’s watch is lifeless to the point that a more appropriate title would be Laborious Day or La-bored Day.
With Frank as an escaped convict, hiding out at the New Hampshire home of Adele and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), high drama seems likely. The vagueness of Frank’s crime should likewise raise the tension, but for a fairly explosive conflict no one exhibits a fraction of personality. A benevolent criminal, Frank embodies the threat of a dandelion when he all of the sudden turns handyman as a thanks for the aiding and abetting. Though it’s natural for mother and son to be stunned by the predicament, regardless of their guest’s good manners, each is expertly wooden even as happiness creeps into the situation.
Regardless of the intended emotion, relative newcomer Griffith is prone to saucer eyes and vacuous line-delivery. More surprising are Winslet, whose void of presence suggests she’s been taking notes from Brit Marling, and Brolin, a fellow reliable talent who may as well be a cardboard cutout of himself. Appearances by Clark Gregg as Adele’s ex-husband, J.K. Simmons as a friendly neighbor, and James Van Der Beek’s vanilla cop continue the muted trend, suggesting that these characters live in a Stephen King town where feelings are outlawed.
Vocabulary-rich reflection from adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) lends Labor Day some early punch, but even its appeal quickly fades as the narration pops up less frequently and with no sense of pattern. Further muddling the flow are flashbacks to Frank’s pre-criminal past, which for the most part are confusing in their inspiration, storyline insertion, and chronology, all of which make a fairly simple chain of events overly complicated. Factor in a bizarre pie-making sequence whose long-term effects are as treacly as the overripe peaches under the crust and this is one bad recipe you won’t mind leafing over.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality.
Labor Day is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.