For many, Labor Day is the saddest of all holidays. It heralds the end of summer, it marks the beginning of school, and, as if right on cue, the weather changes. That same pervasive feeling of sadness hangs like a dark cloud over the new Jason Reitman drama with the same name; Labor Day is one sad film.
It is 1987. Somewhere in rural America lives Adele (Kate Winslet), a divorced mother with her 13 year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and Adele is depressed. Her husband left her for his secretary and she’s finding it difficult to cope. “I could sense her loneliness and longing before I had a name for it,” says an older version of Henry (Tobey Maguire) in a wistful voice-over.
As we learn at the beginning, leaving the house for that once a month trip into town for supplies is full of anxiety for Adele. “For the most part, my mother never mentioned my father or the woman he married,” Henry’s narration explains. Even the simple task of putting the car into reverse in order to back out onto the road is a challenge. It is while on one of those trips to town, the Thursday before the Labor Day weekend, that Adele and Henry meet Frank (Josh Brolin).
Frank is an escaped convict. Even though there’s an impression he might not be as dangerous as first perceived, there is still that feeling of threat in his presence. When he states to the nervous young mother, “I’d be grateful if you let me stay ‘till nightfall,” it’s less of a request and more a way of stating his intention.
Frank stays, hiding overnight in Adele’s dilapidated house. It is when Adele, Henry and the runaway Frank sit in front of the TV that we learn a little more about the man. As a local newsreader explains, Frank Chambers was serving eighteen years for murder when he escaped from prison hospital. “Didn’t happen that way,” Frank growls back at the TV referring to the crime of which he’s accused. Through a series of teaser flashbacks we catch glimpses of what actually happened. Each flashback reveals a little more until we finally see for ourselves what happened. In truth, what happened to Frank in that one moment of anger and passion years ago and what caused him to end up in prison could arguably happen to anyone.
As you can probably imagine, Frank stays for more than the one night. He’s there for the whole Labor Day weekend, and it’s during this time he becomes the perfect husband figure for Adele. If anything, he actually becomes the perfect, fantasy husband, the strong, reliable guy who can do and fix anything, and all in one day. He changes the oil on the car, fixes the annoying squeak in the locks of the porch swing door, changes tires in a flash, repairs problems in the house, and even cleans and waxes the wooden floors. And to cap it all, he knows how to bake a pie with the perfect crust. Plus, he looks like Josh Brolin. Who wouldn’t want Frank around?
The infuriating thing about Labor Day is that with its tone, its look and its outstanding performances from both Winslet and Brolin, you’re expecting more than just something that develops into what appears like a well performed Harlequin romance. I’m told the book by Joyce Maynard explores the inner feelings of the characters in a way that makes you fully understand and accept how such an affair between a depressed single mother and a convict can blossom in such a short time, but the film doesn’t. When, on the Friday, Frank talks of leaving that night, both mother and son ask him to stay longer. It’s difficult to buy. He may be a great handyman to have around the house and he did bake the perfect peach pie – I have to admit, the crust looked particularly good – but as presented in the film, there wasn’t anything more happening to suggest it would be a good idea to keep the convict around. Obviously, what we’re supposed to sense is a quiet, unobserved passion presumably bubbling under the surface between the two leads, but it’s just not there. For us, it’s an emotion free ride.
For those going in expecting and wanting nothing more than a quality Nicholas Sparks type story – perhaps an unfair criticism to fans of Joyce Maynard but you can’t help the comparison – Labor Day will work just fine, but when the film positions itself with promises of something more then doesn’t deliver, and you realize this is where it’s going long before it concludes, you can’t help but be disappointed.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 111 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)