By Carl Kozlowski
In the course of just five feature films director Jason Reitman has established himself as a timelessly talented filmmaker. From his wicked satire Thank You for Smoking and the hip Oscar-winning comedy Juno to Up In the Air and the low-key yet biting dramedy Young Adult, Reitman has presented stories rooted in unique and memorable characters from America’s heartland.
Now he’s returned with another lyrical tale of average Americans affecting each other’s lives in profound and unexpected ways. Starring Josh Brolin as an escaped convict and Kate Winslet as a troubled single mother who is forced to hide him from authorities as they fall in love over a three-day Labor Day weekend, it might be his first flawed film. Yet it retains a romantic power that makes it stick in the mind long after leaving the theater.
Adele (Winslet) is a single mom of a 13-year-old son named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who has been traumatized by her divorce a few years before. She’s phobic of everything in her town, so she only goes out monthly to shop for supplies.
While shopping, a mysterious man named Frank (Brolin) asks Henry and Adele to get him out of the store they’re in and out of the area. Frank seems menacing at first, and soon they are all at Adele’s house far outside the town. As Frank hides out from police roadblocks searching for him, he starts to repair numerous things in Adele’s house and cooks amazingly well. This includes an incredible pie that’s so sensually made by the duo that it will either provoke uncomfortable laughter or become a classic romantic scene akin to the sculpture-making love scene in Ghost.
This brief respite provides an odd normalcy for Adele and Frank, two damaged souls who are desperate for attention and love. It also provides Henry with a father figure outside his nice but somewhat distant real dad. As the trio hide from neighbors and the police, it quickly becomes clear that Frank and Adele are so caught up in emotions that they decide to run away together, with the plan leading to unforeseen complications that affect their entire lives.
Labor Day is a beautifully shot movie with rich characters and terrific actors to portray them. Its story is simple yet powerful, as it reminds us that not every criminal ruthlessly committed their crimes and sometimes genuine mistakes can ruin lives. While Frank and Adele help each other through the movie’s Labor Day weekend, the movie shows itself as a tale of love and forgiveness and worldly redemption.
Yet, the film is not without flaws. A series of mysterious flashbacks to a past romance are so vaguely conveyed until their payoff that they could stir annoyance in viewers for much of the film’s running time, even as the revelations they build to ultimately have emotional resonance.
And the dynamics of the relationship between Winslet and Brolin are also maddening at points before we fully learn what drives each character, making me want to yell at the screen at a few points as I wondered why Winslet didn’t take advantage of numerous opportunities to break free from Brolin. Yet again, Reitman’s script (based on a novel by acclaimed writer Joyce Maynard) overcomes those doubts by the end.
For those who appreciate films about people who seem real, and those who love romantic movies with some surprise twists, Labor Day will deliver.