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With: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler
Written by: Jason Reitman, based on a novel by Joyce Maynard
Directed by: Jason Reitman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
Running Time: 111
Date: 01/31/2014
IMDB

Labor Day (2013)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wrong Weekend

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There's nothing really wrong with the idea of Labor Day. It comes from a reputable novel, a reputable director, and a reputable cast. On another day, they -- or someone -- could have made something terrific out of it. But what was actually made and being released in theaters is a total misfire. It's OK in some spots, and appallingly awful in other spots. It's as if the filmmakers started digging in a particular direction, perhaps realized their error, but decided it was too late and kept on digging.

It's 1987 in Massachusetts. Adele (Kate Winslet) is a divorced mom, so depressed that even going to the store gives her the shakes. She has a devoted son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who spends the entire movie looking worried. On a trip to the store, a fierce looking Frank (Josh Brolin), clearly wounded and bleeding, coerces them into giving him a ride back to their place. It turns out he's an escaped fugitive, a convicted murderer.

He asks to stay for a few hours, but winds up making dinner, doing a few household chores, and staying through the weekend (the Labor Day weekend, of course). During this time, Frank and Adele fall in love and Frank becomes the wise, gentle, doting father that Henry never had. Apparently, despite having spent 18 years in jail, Frank is very skilled at fixing cars, playing baseball, cleaning, cooking, and general repairs. He teaches Henry everything he ever needs to know in his life in just a few days.

He's also a good people person. When the neighbor drops her developmentally disabled son for a babysit, Frank treats him with respect and dignity, wheeling him out in the back for a game of catch, and even mopping the boy's warm brow at one point. (Huh?) How on earth did Frank learn this kind of compassion in prison? Even if it were possible, the movie doesn't help explain.

We also meet Henry's real dad (Clark Gregg), who is a bit of a weasel, having left Adele to marry his secretary. They take Henry out to dinner every Sunday, with the secretary's wisecracking son from a former marriage and a new child together. Then, there are snatches of flashbacks about a blonde girl that, at first, we might assume is Adele in her younger days, but she turns out to be Frank's former wife; this is the story about how he turned up in jail.

The director is Jason Reitman, who has had a remarkable career in a short time, having been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director twice, for Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009). But here he makes so many rookie moves. He relies heavily on bad makeup and several different actors to play older and younger versions of various characters, and nothing looks quite right. There's even a shot of the older Henry lying in bed with an actress that looks just like the one that plays his dad's wife!

And poor Griffith looks like he has graduated from the Zac Efron school of acting: just play it totally blank and let your good looks do the work. Thank goodness he has Tobey Maguire narrating for him, or his empty performance would be exposed.

Then we have to contend with the strange musical score by Rolfe Kent, which seems intent on either generating unwarranted suspense and dread, or supreme annoyance; it uses a high-pitched tinnitus sound many times for no apparent reason. Either way, the music never seems to match what's actually happening on screen.

Part of the problem can be traced back to the source material, a novel by Joyce Maynard. I haven't read it, and I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with it, but it's possible that an entirely different approach was in order. Another Maynard novel was once filmed by Gus Van Sant as To Die For (1995), and it became a brilliant black comedy. Is it possible that Reitman may have missed some darker, more biting elements of Labor Day in his adaptation?

Truthfully, some of the immediate moments of romance and connection between Brolin and Winslet have a certain spark -- such as when he ties her to a chair with a sure and gentle touch (don't ask) -- and they are the reason this movie may be worth watching at all. But the darker idea of an escaped killer being accepted as a perfect father figure is pretty much ignored and glossed over, making for a genuinely weird and unpleasant experience.

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