A collaboration between Jason Reitman and Kate Winslet is almost bound to create magic on the silver screen. The multiple Oscar-nominated Reitman had helmed memorable flicks like ‘Up In The Air’ (2009) and the impressively cerebral ‘Thank You For Smoking’ (2005). Winslet, of course, has been synonymous to quality acting – ever since her ‘Titanic’ days. When the two come together for ‘Labor Day’, how can the film be anything but a masterpiece? Well, the movie definitely has its moments, but as end credits roll, you feel a little underwhelmed by it.
‘Labor Day’ narrates one of the most endearing onscreen mother-son bondings in recent times. ‘Adele’ (Kate Winslet) is a melancholic divorcee, who has lost almost all her willingness to live an active life. The only light of her life is her young son ‘Henry’ (Gattlin Griffith) – who tries his best to fulfill the void in his mother’s life. Circumstances have made him more mature than his age, and he realizes that it’s not the separation from husband ‘Gerald’ (Clark Gregg) that is taking a toll on ‘Adele’ – but the feeling of being unloved is hurting her the most. ‘Henry’ takes mommy on cute little dates, prepares breakfast for her, and even makes detailed list of chores that would make him ‘husband for a day’.
Just as ‘Adele’ and ‘Henry’ were going along with their rather mundane lives, something totally unforeseen happens. While on a trip to the supermarket, they are accosted by ‘Frank’ (Josh Brolin) – an injured fugitive who had been sentenced to 18 years of prison, on charges of murder. ‘Frank’ forces the mom-son duo to give him shelter at their home, at least for a few hours. Once at home, his behavior becomes gentle and caring – as he promises to leave as soon as the next train arrives. Unfortunately, it’s the Labor Day weekend – and there are no trains for four days.
As the three of them are forced to stay cooped in the house, away from the public eye and forever wary of the police – a strange set of feelings start developing between them. ‘Adele’ and ‘Henry’ fall deeply in love with each other, and ‘Frank’ becomes more of a father-figure to ‘Henry’ than ‘Gerald’ ever was. However, there is a pang of jealousy in the little kid’s mind too – fueled all the more by the manipulative ‘Eleanor’ (Brighid Fleming), herself a neglected child. Ultimately though, ‘Adele’, ‘Frank’ and ‘Henry’ decide to run off to Canada and start a family of their own there. This little dream of theirs, however, remain unfulfilled.
The screenplay of ‘Labor Day’ (it is, incidentally, an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name) has a languid pace to it – which lends the movie a sort of peaceful feel. For long stretches, nothing really happens – but you would enjoy watching the personal equations of ‘Adele’ with her son at first, and then with ‘Frank’. The scenes where ‘Frank’ teaches ‘Henry’ how to bake a pie, or how to improve his baseball swing, are nothing flashy, but they remain with you after the movie is over.
The performances complement the expertise of the director quite beautifully. Kate Winslet really brings the character of ‘Adele’ to life. Through her expressions, behavior and even actions – she creates the image of a middle-aged woman in love with the idea of being loved, with a skill that few other contemporary actresses possess. There is just the one risk though – she is playing the role of depressed ladies a bit too often of late (think: ‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘The Reader’) – and Winslet might just get typecast for these sort of parts. It’s not her fault that she excels in them though!
The biggest surprise package of ‘Labor Day’ comes in the small frame of Gattlin Griffith, who essays the role of ‘Henry’. The way in which he averts his eyes from the glitzy sportswear and expensive fashion magazines at stores, to stay by the side of his mother would tug at the heartstrings of any viewer. As ‘Frank’ gradually assumes the mantle of the man of the house, ‘Henry’ feels increasingly sidelined. The pained glances he casts when his mom and ‘Frank’ share a laugh together, or are enjoying a cozy moment, are absolutely spot on. Griffith has come a long way from his bit role in ‘The Green Lantern’ three years back, and has the potential to shine more as a child actor.
Saddled with easily the most complex role in the movie, Josh Brolin does his best to make his ‘Frank’ believable. He brings a blend of ruthlessness in his character with a certain degree of dependence on the feisty mother-son duo. Brolin’s dialog delivery is perfect too – and after having a nice shave and all, his handsome features will get him many new female fans. The character sketching could have been just a little better though, for ‘Frank’s character to truly stand out. Clark Gregg, as the gentle, well-meaning (and regularly snubbed) father of ‘Henry’, does a fine job. The film did not really need a visibly disturbed ‘Eleanor’ (smudged kohl lines in the eyes and all), but Brighid Fleming does justice to her role. Other characters are mostly peripheral, and each of them deliver decent performances.
The key problem with ‘Labor Day’ lies in its failure to really connect with the audience’s hearts – something that the director had surely set out to do. It seems grossly improbable that the reticent ‘Adele’ would fall head over heels in love with a man who had made such an unwelcome entry in hers and her son’s lives. Viewers would also probably struggle to believe how a hot-headed murderer (‘Frank’ had accidentally killed his wife ‘Mandy’ – after a heated exchange) would become so gentle and loving, simply because ‘Adele’ and ‘Henry’ had offered him a shelter. This is one of those rare movies which would have been way more charming and believable if it had been half an hour or so longer. Dana E. Glauberman, the editor, should have given some more time for the lead characters to properly evolve.
There is no room to complain about the cinematography of ‘Labor Day’ though. Eric Steelberg’s roving camera expertly captures all the little things of a late ‘80s American neighborhood with panache. Background score, by Rolfe Kent, is almost always in sync with the flow of the narrative. ‘Labor Day’ is not a movie of loud make-ups and fancy costumes, and each character appears delightfully ‘common’ to viewers.
There are plenty of touching moments in ‘Labor Day’. Director Jason Reitman moves back and forth in his storytelling – and the flashback of ‘Frank’s earlier life is riveting. You will feel for him, when he returns from the Vietnam war, only to find that his wife is pregnant with someone else’s kid. The point where ‘Frank’ ties up ‘Adele’ and ‘Frank’ – to make it appear as if he had kidnapped them at their own house – is worth a special mention too. The climax, when a much-older ‘Frank’ writes to a now-adult ‘Henry’ (Tobey Maguire) is brilliantly dramatic – without an iota of sappiness.
If Reitman had developed the characters of ‘Adele’ and ‘Frank’ better, ‘Labor Day’ could well have been an epic drama flick. The grandstand performances of the actors do not quite cover up the flaws in the story set-up, and in the end – everything seems just a tad forced. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but we have come to expect even better from Reitman.
If you are a fan of nice, touching movies, ‘Labor Day’ can very well be a decent one-time watch. Kate Winslet will mesmerize you once again, and little Gattlin Griffith’s nuanced performance will leave you in awe. At the end though – you will be left with one feeling: ‘Almost, but not quite!’