Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, “Labor Day” is a coming-of-age story that deals with various difficult aspects of life, such as death, love, and divorce. Featuring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey McGuire, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, and J.K. Simmons, this film is a whirlwind of drama and emotion.
While far from flawless and telling a tale that is perfect for the screen (but fairly implausible in real life), this movie has a great deal going for it.
Written and directed by Jason Reitman (“Up In The Air”, “Juno”), this film begins with one of the slowest openings I’ve seen in a long time. However, with gentle music and narration from Tobey McGuire (playing the adult version of one of the main characters), the story and characters become quite well established. Within minutes of a somewhat boring and continuous beginning, one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie takes place as a wounded, escaped-convict named Frank (Brolin) seeks assistance by approaching young Henry (Griffith) and his mother, Adele (Winslet), at the supermarket. With the cops looking everywhere for Frank, he forces the mother and son back to their home to hide out. At first, Frank appears to be aggressive and possibly violent, but he quickly presents himself as a smart, caring, and somewhat funny gentleman. Because Adele is depressed and lonely from her divorce, and Henry is without a consistent father figure, Frank quickly begins to develop a relationship with them and continues to find reasons to hide out while helping around the house. With the police continuing to search and Frank and Adele making plans for the future, suspicions begin to arise and their Labor Day weekend fantasy begins to fade. In the end, everything works out as you might expect and the movie leaves you with a satisfying feeling.
One of the strongest elements of “Labor Day” is its characters and the variety of emotions the film presents. Josh Brolin gives a solid performance as a criminal filled with regret who appears to know how to care for a sweet, lonely divorcee and mentor a young boy because of his rough past. He can be scary or aggressive when necessary, but he is also a loving, humorous, good man with pure intentions. Kate Winslet plays a very typical role as a reserved, quiet, almost fragile women looking for companionship, and young actor Gattlin Griffith is an adorable and curious kid. Rounding out the supporting cast is Clark Gregg, giving his usual light comical performance as Henry’s real father who left him at a young age and started a new family, J.K. Simmons, who only appears in a brief scene (extremely underutilized), and James Van Der Beek, who almost forces his role as a local police officer. There is also an eccentric young actress (Brighid Fleming) who plays a friend of Henry’s with a vulgar mouth and the advanced mind of an adult, and actor Tom Lipinski and actress Maika Monroe play young Frank and his wife during a series of flashbacks.
Another solid element of this film is the mix of different emotions. From romantic and heartwarming scenes that make you want to cry to watching entertaining, playful moments that cause you to laugh, this movie is a rollercoaster ride of different feelings. The film uses flashbacks and cut scenes to further explain what is being said, reveal a character’s background, or play out a potential future scenario. The romance is not too over the top or obnoxious, but rather wholesome and family friendly, and more times than not, it is easy to get so caught up in the story or current state of a character, that you completely disregard any prior actions, mistakes, or reality of who that person is and what they’ve done. There’s no clear sex, extreme violence, or much action for that matter, but instead, there is a series of feel-good, awe-inspiring scenes and shocking reveals. The movie covers a long timeline and uses multiple actors for the parts of Henry’s character (played by a young Griffith and older Tobey Maguire) and Frank (older Brolin and younger Tom Lipinski).
Some of the best parts of this film that are dramatic and exciting are undercut by the lack of plausibility. This story is based on a book and seems to work on paper and even the big screen, but there are certain aspects that would occur differently in real life (not as perfect). For instance, there is an initial hesitation on the part of Adele and Henry to render assistance to Frank and accept him into their home, as he is a murderer escaped from jail. However, almost immediately, they are baking pies, throwing the baseball, and playing house together like a real family. It’s not that this couldn’t happen, but it just happens so fast that you have no time to think or blink. Similarly, Brolin is made out to seem like he is innocent and has been wrongfully accused for murder, but as his story unfolds, we shockingly learn the truth. Like many Hollywood films, there are a few scenes that are slightly over-the-top as they add a high level of drama and intensity to parts that normally wouldn’t be such in real life (or at least different). Not intending to be, the bank scene at the end is almost comical as too much is made over Adele trying to withdraw money.
There is a lot of contradictory information, and it appears as if the filmmakers constantly are changing their minds on what is going to happen and what they want audiences to feel. There is so much happening throughout the film, dealing with a handful of characters at different stages in their lives and unveiling characters’ backgrounds, that it becomes slightly confusing from time to time. The film seems to be trying to say too much in a short amount of time; "No one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes." "People deserve forgiveness." "In the end, everything will work out." The problem with this is, we don’t always get happy endings.
All of the above mentioned aside, the film has its ups and downs, hits and misses. It will be entertaining and moving to some, but may be too much for others. As for me, I’m a sucker for the “happily-ever-after.” Go see it for yourself this weekend and let me know what you think!
Rated 2.5 out of 5
“Labor Day” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality. Running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
Hayden Pittman is a special contributor to WFAA.com and a freelance film critic and entertainment blogger out of Dallas. More of his content can be found on YouPlusDallas.com and his author archive here. He is a film, TV, and sports enthusiast, and hopes to pursue a future in filmmaking and screenwriting. As an average, passionate film lover who rarely misses a film, his reviews are straightforward and his way with words will let you know in a simple way what he thinks. Don’t like what he has to say? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @HPMoviePitt.