Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Labor Day (2013/US)

Julien Faddoul

(0 stars)

wd – Jason Reitman   (Based on the Novel by Joyce Maynard)
ph – Eric Steelberg
pd – Steve Saklad
m – Rolfe Kent
ed – Dana E. Glauberman
cos – Danny Glicker

p – Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith

Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith

Labor Day is one of those movies where every name in the end credits induces a double take. It is sincerely baffling that people with such talent could be responsible for such a mess. Or maybe it isn’t. I often think about Roger Ebert’s review of Death to Smoochy (2001) where he states that it would only take people of such talent to make a movie that bad. This is true. Talented people have the internal freedom to dream big, to reach higher. And the higher they reach, the greater they can fall.

After much deliberation with myself I have deduced that what director Jason Reitman was attempting here was a kind-of modern cinematic interpretation of the Douglas Sirk aesthetic. Nothing in Mr Reitman’s previous work (in any form) would have signaled an interest in such illusory melodrama, which is what makes it all the more baffling. The Sirkian way is not easy to pull-off – just look at all the barely functioning Nicholas Sparks adaptations. But Labor Day is such an artistic catastrophe that it is much easier to go on living one’s life remembering it with hilarious hindsight than in digging deeper through its banal leitmotifs.

The film is based on the novel by Joyce Maynard of the same name. The year is 1987. A cautious young boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is preparing to go back to school after the summer holidays. His mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), suffers from a kind of agoraphobia, which she obtained when her husband (Clark Gregg) left them. She becomes extremely nervous whenever other people are around, but she is able to motivate herself (with help from Henry) to take her son to buy school supplies. While they're at the store, a tall, dark stranger named Frank (Josh Brolin) advances Henry and asks for a ride. Nay, he demands one. He's bleeding, frightening and visibly threatening. So the three of them go back to Adele's home to give Frank a place to hide out until nightfall. Instead, he ends up staying for the entire labor day weekend, which makes this movie even more ludicrous than one’s first impression: this all happened in 72 hours?

The exhibition of Frank and Adele gradually falling in love is conveyed through scenes of the two of them sensually making fruit pies and Mr Reitman attempts here to do for pies what Ghost (1990) did for pottery. Unfortunately, the whole thing is about as sexy as a dead cat. Also, quite unseemly, considering these moments always involve the kid baking the pies with them.

Scenes where the characters are in danger don’t work either. The film is narrated by Henry as an adult (Tobey Maguire) and the narration is determined to over-explain what is clearly visible. Mr Brolin and Ms Winslet, both wonderful actors, are unable to shoulder the Sirkian weight that Mr Reitman thrusts upon them and they spend most of the movie blinking and making horny faces.

I have not read Ms Maynard’s book, but if the film’s ending is appropriated from it then no elucidation I can muster can account for its success. On screen, it is as laughable as the ending of Safe Haven (2013). Well, almost.

I am not sure what Mr Reitman – who wrote and co-produced the film as well – envisioned here but this can’t have been it. I am sure he feels, like many of us, that the genre of the Romance is cowering in dire residence. But he is not its savior and hopefully he will return to more prosperous areas in the future. Labor Day is an agonizing experience and it is lesson to us all to always be cautious when approaching the flame: the larger it is, the likelier you will get burned.

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