Whip-smart dark comedy has been a signature thus far in the career of writer-director Jason Reitman, who kicked things off by skewering the marketing/promotional efforts of the tobacco industry (and American society as a whole) in Thank You for Smoking. He followed that up by helming screenwriter Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning sassy teen pregnancy dramedy Juno, in which an unplanned pregnancy turned the spotlight on the hypocrisy of whether anyone is ever really ready to have and raise a child. Up in the Air found George Clooney stranded between corporate success (built on a sly use of his trademark charm) and existential ennui, while Young Adult, a third collaboration with Cody (the second was black comedy horror film Jennifer’s Body, which he produced), stuck the knife in deeper before twisting it for maximum effect as a divorced fiction writer (Charlize Theron) with delusions of grandeur retreats to her small-town roots to woo her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), who is now happily married with a newborn.
So it is strange that Reitman veers so far off the beaten path with Labor Day (based on his adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name); the story of Adele (Kate Winslet), a single mother caught in a debilitating depression that has rendered her almost completely unable to care for her young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) or herself. Adele is a fictional creation from another age, a period when women were taken care of by the men in their lives, but the times, they are changing and Adele’s husband (Clark Gregg) has moved on, found himself another love and life, and Adele is stuck. She locks herself inside her home and keeps poor Henry on a pretty short leash, too.
Of course, one fateful day, when Henry and Adele have ventured out for their monthly shopping, the boy bumps into Frank (Josh Brolin), a gruff manly figure wandering the aisles of the department/grocery store, who coerces Henry and Adele to give him a ride.
Frank bears a wound in his side, but a moody charm that makes his brand of danger attractive. It turns out Frank is an escaped prisoner, convicted of murder, with a sad and romantic story to go along with his perfect, gentlemanly manners. When the trio arrives back at Adele and Henry’s, Frank makes a show of tying them up to give them an alibi, in case, at some point, the police discover what has happened. He doesn’t want them to look like accomplices; he’s such a sensitive soul.
All of the sentiment here begs for more than a little humor. The premise, which might work fine on the page of old-school romantic fare, screams for a delicious bit of satirical flavor. It might not have been so bad if things strayed into camp, because as it stands, there’s heavy-handedness to the melodrama; if Reitman had put his thumb on the scale, we would have appreciated the balancing intent. Instead, he keeps leaning on the absurdity of the dramatic clichés.
Handy with tools, Frank fixes up the much neglected home. He teaches Henry to play baseball, and he shows that he knows his way around the kitchen. First, he prepares a pot of chili and feeds Adele (even blowing each spoonful before carefully slipping it into her waiting mouth) while she’s all tied up. Then, he involves them in a peach pie-making episode that smacks of Food Network food porn dreams come true.
Watching all of this unfold during the Toronto International Film Festival, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Reitman. Had the Canadian gone soft? Lost not just his spine, but also maybe his entire skeleton? It seemed likely because Labor Day was artificially flavored jelly, the kind that had gone bad sitting on the shelf, but here Reitman was trying to sell it anyway to a collection of connoisseurs of taste.
To make matters worse, Reitman was wasting the talents of Winslet and Brolin on this sickly sweet fairytale stuff. Winslet invests Adele with all the right notes of hesitation and desperation, going so far as to make us believe that she might actually sacrifice her son for a chance at real happiness with the romantic ideal embodied in Frank. And Brolin continues to mine the rugged American myth of old, chiseling away at that bedrock character to reveal more of the core that we’ve forgotten, the further removed we are from it.
Therein lies my issue with Labor Day. I wish Reitman had found some kernel of truth that could have told us something brutally honest about ourselves, as he’s done in the past, rather than wallowing in sentimental clichés that were probably not an accurate reflection of who we were at the time to begin with. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: C
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