Friday, January 31, 2014

Labor Day: Belabored

Labor Day (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Good artists love to stretch, and should be encouraged to do so; nothing is worse than getting stuck in a rut.

With Frank (Josh Brolin, right) keeping a wary eye on her, Adele (Kate Winslet) quietly
pays for her purchases, afraid that any effort to raise a fuss about this menacing
stranger might endanger her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith).
Still, it’s puzzling that Jason Reitman — a director/scripter best known for deliciously snarky dialogue and the piquant social commentary of Juno and Up in the Air — would settle for the soggy melodrama of Labor Day. At best, Joyce Maynard’s source novel is one step up from a Nicholas Sparks weeper, and Reitman’s approach slides right into the sloppy sentimentality of a big-screen Harlequin romance, with an endless parade of stricken expressions and long-suffering sighs.

Honestly, this film has so many pregnant pauses, they should have delivered twins or triplets. Strip out the long wordless takes on young Gattlin Griffith alone, and Labor Day would be half an hour shorter.

Okay, that’s unduly harsh and somewhat unfair. When the anguished gazes come from Kate Winslet, they contain undeniable dramatic heft; her every glance and gesture convey a wealth of emotional data. To his credit, co-star Josh Brolin also delivers a persuasive performance, and Griffith — his protracted silences notwithstanding — capably holds up his end of the equation.

Somehow, though, the dramatic whole is less than the sum of these thespic parts. I simply couldn’t get beyond the story’s contrivance and constricted timeline: shortcomings that may have been less conspicuous during the leisurely reading of a 288-page novel, but which confront us aggressively during a two-hour movie.

The story is a memoir shared via adult hindsight by Tobey Maguire, whose narrative voice always is a treat; he delivers just the right blend of wistful nostalgia and reflective insight. He tells us of a most unusual event that took place when he was 13, amidst a particularly sweltering New England summer weekend in 1987.

Young Henry (Griffith) is the sole companion to his mother, Adele (Winslet), who has become reclusive following the quiet tragedy that led up to an unhappy divorce. Henry is her lifeline; to the degree allowed by his youth, he conducts modest financial transactions and handles small shopping chores. But he’s still a boy; larger responsibilities elude him, and their house is sliding slowly into disrepair.

Neighbors, although observant and well-intentioned, respect Adele’s desire for isolation.

Every so often, though, Adele must enter the real world; this particular excursion is prompted by Henry’s having outgrown his clothes. With a new school year starting the following week, he needs a new wardrobe ... and so, reluctantly, Adele drives them to the closest department store.

Which just happens to be where escaped convict Frank (Brolin) is holed up, if only briefly. Seeing Adele and Henry as the next phase of his ill-prepared plan to evade pursuit, he coerces them into taking him home. Truth be told, it doesn’t take much intimidation; Adele, withdrawn by nature and now frightened to boot, is meekly compliant. Henry, worried about his mother, similarly obliges.

Truth be told, though, the observant Henry already has analyzed the nature of Frank’s character, deciding that this stranger — despite his mildly ominous bearing — is no real threat. Once inside the house, the unexpectedly gentle interloper lives up to Henry’s expectations. Indeed, Frank exceeds them; although these three initially navigate the delicate dance expected of a hostage situation, the dynamic quickly shifts into something wholly benign.

There’s much more to Frank than meets the eye, above and beyond the obvious fact that he’s hardly a savage criminal. Indeed, as the first uneasy day and night pass, and the wary atmosphere shifts into something friendly and comfortable, Frank proves quite useful: cooking and cheerfully tackling various household projects, while clocking the mounting police presence in the community.

And, sensing Adele’s emotional vulnerabilities, serving as an impressively astute ad-hoc therapist.

Frank has his own back-story, of course, the details of which emerge with maddening sluggishness via dream-hazy flashbacks. (Actually, Reitman’s handling of these flashbacks also is vague; at first, I wasn’t sure if we were glimpsing events from Frank’s past, or Adele’s.)

The point is that Frank also is a gravely wounded sparrow, just like Adele; the story’s lyrical romanticism comes from the possibility that these two damaged people might help heal each other.

The problem is that Reitman’s script ladles the tragedy with a trowel. One shattered past would be sufficient, but we’re given two; on top of that, artificial suspense is injected via additional misfortune as this long weekend proceeds. The growing bond between Frank, Adele and Henry is augmented for one day, when a neighbor, Evelyn (Brooke Smith), unexpectedly asks Adele — Frank carefully concealed — to watch her developmentally challenged son Barry (Micah Fowler), while she handles a family emergency.

This interlude is charming, complete with a pick-up baseball game and Frank’s gentle plucking on a guitar. Fifteen-year-old Fowler is a proudly successful wheelchair-bound actor determined not to be defined by his disability, and his performance is authentic, subtly poignant and quite heartwarming.

The jarring note comes later, when Evelyn returns to collect her son ... and abuses him so savagely, so unexpectedly, that we can’t help gasping.

That’s just nuts: one awful plot hiccup too many ... particularly since it’s pointless and hardly essential to the core story.

It’s also one of several tin-eared details, such as this whopper: For a guy worried about being spotted by neighbors or cops, Frank spends a lot of time outdoors, in various parts of Adele’s yard. It’s not as if they’re hidden behind an 8-foot brick wall...


Winslet always is a revelation: a far quieter and less showy actress than, say, Meryl Streep, but every bit as compelling. Winslet drew a Golden Globe nomination for this performance, and no surprise; anguish radiates from this woman, forever at war with herself to force the completion of something as simple as brewing a pot of coffee. Adele is smart enough to understand the danger of being defined by her despair, but not quite strong enough to act upon this knowledge.

Winslet’s most delicate work comes when Adele musters up early defiance to Frank, some protective, Mama Bear pluck struggling to be recognized on her wan features. He, in response, respects this display of spirit, perceiving the great cost Adele needs to achieve it. Brolin’s sensitivity, during these early exchanges, is equally subtle and believable (and our first clue that Frank is a “good guy”).

Griffith, perhaps remembered as Angelina Jolie’s ill-fated son in 2008’s Changeling, deftly navigates the complex emotions required by his role. Since Henry is this saga’s narrator, we view these events as filtered through his gaze, and via his 13-year-old sensibilities. Although his loyalty to his mother is paramount, Henry also craves a devoted paternal influence, his actual father — Clark Gregg, as Gerald — having fled into the sheltering warmth of a new wife and family.

(To his credit, Gerald isn’t a total cad, as we eventually learn.)

Maika Monroe has a droll supporting role as Mandy, a worldly wise girl who catches Henry’s eye during the occasional “missions” that briefly take him out of the house. Monroe’s character is so precocious to become comic relief, and it’s not hard to hear echoes of Juno MacGuff in her snarky dialogue.

James Van Der Beek makes the most of his brief scene as a local police officer, whose unexpected presence augments the story’s slowly building tension. And the always dependable J.K. Simmons — Reitman’s good-luck charm, having appeared in all of the filmmaker’s work — pops up as a neighbor who delivers a bucket of fresh peaches.

Ah, yes: the peaches. This prompts a baking interlude that carries dreamily romantic echoes of everything from the “special” pies made in 2007’s Waitress, to the clay-wheel seduction in 1990’s Ghost, with echoes of classic food-porn scenes such as the lustful dinner Albert Finney shares with Joyce Redman, in 1963’s Tom Jones. That said, the mildly sensual charge in this pie-making scene gets a bit awkward, given Henry’s presence.

Still, when finished, it looks like a mouth-wateringly perfect pie.

I’d love to say the same about the film itself, but Reitman’s approach is too mannered, too deliberate, too unnatural. We too frequently see the puppeteer’s strings.

Ultimately, I just didn’t buy it. And that’s death for a fragile drama of this nature.

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