(NEW YORK) — Director Jason Reitman has been on a winning streak, with films that include Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, and 2011’s underrated Young Adult. With Labor Day, Reitman turns his attention to adapting and directing the novel by Joyce Maynard. For the first time, one of Hollywood’s best directors does not succeed.
It’s 1985 and our story is being narrated by the adult version of Henry, voiced by Tobey Maguire. Who we see is 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith), interacting with his forlorn, divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). Adele doesn’t like to leave the house and can barely muster the courage to pull their station wagon out of the driveway for a simple trip to the local store. On this fateful day, Henry and Adele are being watched there by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who’s bleeding through his shirt. He befriends Henry and convinces the young boy to introduce him to Adele, which he does.
As you can imagine, Adele is quite uncomfortable, especially when Frank, who’s not without charm but reeks of danger, urges her to give him a ride.
This is exactly when you, the viewer, will have to make a decision: do you commit to this somewhat unconvincing series of events and continue to believe in this story, or do you check out and hope these fine performances pull you back in?
Frank, without actually threatening Adele or Henry, convinces them to take him back to their house, asking refuge from the cops for the night but claiming he doesn’t want to hurt either of his hosts. Frank may or may not be what he seems, and may or may not be guilty of the crime for which he was doing time. Either way, he’s been behind bars for years, a prisoner for something he might have done in the past, while lonely Adele is a prisoner of her past — desperate and broken, like the script.
I’ve been a fan of Reitman’s work but I’m not a fan of this movie. As Labor Day progresses, the more implausible and manipulative it seems. There are moving moments but they’re a function of brilliant acting, primarily Winslet’s ability to find and convey the truth of every moment she’s on screen, while Brolin’s quiet charisma keeps you tethered to his character throughout. Even so, this sloppy, sappy narrative comes across as an attempt to make an Oscar-caliber “chick flick” but fails because it’s constantly telling us to care, instead of organically allowing us to care.
Two out of five stars.
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Madison Park, Keith Allen and Andreas Preuss, CNN
Sara Stewart, CNN