Labor Day may be good Valentine film
By Sandra Olmsted
In writer-director Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, the slowly unfolding story doles out romantic and dramatic tensions in digestible bites. Although told from the perspective of 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith), the story focuses on his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) heartbreak, depression, and withdrawal from society. At first, her wallowing in seems to be about being divorced from Henry’s father Gerald (Clark Gregg), but a deeper reason for Adele’s sadness drove the weak Gerald away. Although Hollywood rarely makes this once popular genre of film, the Woman’s Picture, Reitman may revive it with Labor Day.
Henry’s desire to rescue and protect his mother drives a wedge between him and his dad, who started a new family and only sees Henry for Sunday dinners at restaurants. Acutely aware of the abandonment, Henry’s hunger for any father figure, especially one not as flawed as his real father, drives Henry even though he doesn’t realize it. Then, on one of Adele’s rare trips to Pricemart, Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict, approaches Henry for help. Frank isn’t threatening so much as commanding, and Henry and Adele willing accept his rule and control a little to easily because of their unhappiness.
Once in their home, the menace of Frank’s presence grows, but Reitman has a surprise waiting: Adele has more of backbone than suspected. Frank wants to hop a train and be gone, but the trains have taken the holiday weekend off, so he has to stay. Frank also has a problem or two; he’s just had an appendectomy and injured himself jumping from a hospital window. He also carries a great sadness. Through jumbled flashbacks, Reitman begins unfolding the back story, and, eventually, clarity emerges. In the meantime, Frank plays a father to Henry and soon a husband to Adele, but are his motives and emotions genuine? Is the sensuality of the pie making scene, which rivals that of the pot throwing scene in Ghost, a reflection of true feelings or a manipulation of Adele and Henry? Frank, who is as damaged as Adele, may be protecting himself physically and emotionally.
Labor Day, his fifth feature film, seems a bit of a departure for Reitman, but the character studies that underlies Labor Day and his other films, such as Up in the Air and Juno, figures into this film also. An adaptation, like several of Reitman’s other films, Labor Day has more controversial material than his other films because Henry, Adele, and Frank’s character flaws and desires aren’t readily apparent, and the flashbacks don’t help initially.
Also, there are multiple time periods and, therefore, multiple actors playing the same character. Tobey Maguire provides narration in the voice of a grown-up Henry and appears in a cameo as a grown-up Henry while Tom Lipinski plays a younger Frank in the ethereal flashbacks. Reitman emerges as an exceptional director of actresses especially, a hallmark of the traditional Woman’s Picture, and the superb acting carries the audience through the implausibility of some plot twists and the confusing but beautifully shot flashbacks.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day has expressive cinematography by director of photography Eric Steelberg, who captures the multiple time periods in such away that the past, present, and future are clearly delineated. Production designer Steve Saklad and costume designer Danny Glicker’s pitch-perfect design of the production and the costumes clarify the time periods, and Rolfe Kent’s gently score guides the audience’s emotions.
Labor Day is a romantic and interesting departure, in some ways, for Reitman, but the return of the Woman’s Picture should be welcomed. Labor Day, a Paramount Pictures release, runs 111 minutes and is PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality. Labor Day is in theaters now, just in time for Valentine’s Day. (More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at <www.thecinematicskinny.com)
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