Welcome! To Stockholm Syndrome: The Movie.
Or, Labor Day. The film is adapted and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard. I was aware of the middling reviews the film received, but I have an appreciation for Reitman’s previous films. I hoped that there might be some silver lining that half of the critics weren’t catching; surely Reitman brought some of his creative charm to the experience. Right?
Labor Day depicts an extended weekend set in the home of Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), as they are both held/not-held captive by escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin). The three characters quickly form a bond and strive to find a way to live happily ever after.
The movie is… well, let’s start with something positive. It looks great. The film is set in a small (Massachusetts?) town, and it opens with loving shots of the scenery. The colors pop off the screen – creating an immersive experience – but are quickly contrasted with the dark, dull house that Adele has holed herself up in for the last several years. These early moments gave me hope for the film. The cinematography throughout is beautiful, particularly in the Terrence Malick-esque presentation of Frank’s backstory.
However, It is not encouraging that my favorite parts of the movie were the ones where Reitman is biting another director’s style. Part of the film’s problem is that Reitman actively fights the impulses that made his past films enjoyable. None of them can be called straight-up comedies, but there are comedic elements that help lend the movies legitimacy when juxtaposed with the melodrama. Labor Day, on the other hand, is Reitman’s attempt at a pure drama. There is maybe one moment of engaging levity – in a scene where Henry has dinner with his father (Clark Gregg) and his new family. But after this Henry must return to the black hole of charisma that is his home. The house is the setting for most of the film, so it is really too bad that the scenes set there have no life to them. To an extent this is intentional; Adele has turned the house into a kind of prison for herself, but that sense pervades the entire picture, even when Frank is meant to bring some life to the abode.
Winslet and Brolin are both doing their best, but neither actor is given a whole lot to work with. There is not a whole lot of personality to Frank, aside from his backstory. He is portrayed as a perfect person: he’s handy, he is a great cook, he knows sports, he’s even good with handicapped children. Frank has a helpful platitude to whip out in any situation. He’s one step away from drawing Adele like one of his French girls.
So in this exaggerated reality where such a man can exist it is no wonder that Adele and Henry both fall in love with him immediately. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the reality that we all live in, it happens a little too quickly. And Adele seems to change completely as a character the moment she meets Frank. We see glimpses of her former self as a shut-in and a pushover, but I guess Frank’s baby blues (I actually have no idea what color his eyes are) were enough to immediately turn that around.
Griffith is fine as Henry. This kid can play young Tobey Maguire and young Ryan Reynolds – now that’s range! Henry – a young teen just beginning his pubescent journey – is one of the few characters in the film whose actions and justifications make sense. I mean, this is a kid who gave his hamster the very creative name of “Joe,” so yeah, he is going to need as much help as Frank can give him. Every move Henry makes can be attributed to the place and time he finds himself in. I wish the same could be true of everyone else.
The plot itself is not uninteresting; the movie gets you invested in how everything will resolve (as well as how Frank ended up where he is, which adds a shred of dimension to his character), but the trek is not worth the trouble. The film lacks any subtlety in Frank and Adele’s relationship, and it wastes good-to-great actors like J.K. Simmons, James Van Der Beek, and Tobey Maguire on nothing roles. At least Gregg gets a little something to do. Labor Day is not necessarily a mess; it is not risky enough to be described in such a way. The movie just is what it is: conventional and entirely disposable. And that just is not what anyone should be expecting from Jason Reitman.