Stockholm Syndrome 101. Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin star in Oscar nominated writer/director Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.
Director – Jason Reitman
Screenplay – Jason Reitman
Based on the novel Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
Producer – Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith, Jason Reitman & Helen Estabrook
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
In the late 80’s, Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is a depressed single mom who’s raising her only child, 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). One day, while out shopping, they encounter an injured man who, for just a short time, would change their lives forever: Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). He approaches them, asking for a temporary place to stay, and when Adele hesitantly tries to talk her way out of doing so, she soon realizes this man is not quite asking.
While being provided temporary shelter, Adele and Henry soon find out that Frank is a fugitive on the lam, sentenced to prison for murder. However, Frank slowly reveals that there is more to the story than what is being told.
If there’s anyone out there as far as current, young filmmakers riding a hot streak right now, it’s Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman of Stripes and Ghostbusters fame). Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and the underrated Young Adult – Reitman is batting 1.000 here. If you’ve seen the trailer for Labor Day, you might’ve gotten the impression that he’s wanting to branch out of what he’s normally known for doing. Depending on the viewer, that could go either way. Some may feel he needs to stick to what he does best. Why fix what’s not broken? Others may feel diversifying could possibly add to the talent he already has.
Labor Day is certainly dividing the opinions of both critics and viewers. I can see the dissenting point of view. It’s a much slower paced film than what we’ve seen from Reitman before, and the poster does have a, “Oh, God, now he’s doing Nicholas Sparks adaptations?” vibe to it. That said, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience that was at times moving, without totally immersing into the typical saccharine romantic territory. I should enjoy it now, ’cause in two weeks I’m gonna choke to death on the overly sappy Valentine’s weekend crap.
If you look at this film and the past films that Reitman has done, it’s clear that he knows how to develop characters that we think we wouldn’t like, but end up gradually doing so. Whether it’s Aaron Eckhart’s charming tobacco lobbyist, Ellen Page’s snarky and sarcastic pregnant teen, George Clooney’s jaded axeman, or an immature Charlize Theron, these are flawed individuals that are well-written, well-rounded and perfectly translated to the screen by Reitman. Josh Brolin’s Frank Chambers can also be added to the list.
What a terrific performance from Brolin, one that is easily one of his best. I was never a huge fan of Brolin’s (Jonah Hex certainly didn’t help) per se, but have enjoyed the work he’s done in No Country for Old Men, Milk, American Gangster, and even his schlock-y villain in Robert Rodriguez’s segment of Grindhouse. Plus, how can you forget The Goonies? They never say die, you know. Here, Brolin gives us a man, sentenced for murder, but – in a nice directing touch from Reitman – we find out, through a series of flashbacks, the tragic circumstances that led to him becoming a wanted man. It’s an empathetic performance of a man that seems genuine and sincere, yet there are the rare moments on occasion where the intimidation Frank is capable of shows itself.
Continuing her streak of performances that have won me over since I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my girl Kate Winslet. Whether ratcheting up the drama or reading from a phone book, topless or decked out in a hazmat suit, this woman can move me like no other actress out there. We’ve seen her play the frumpy housewife before, but boy, can she sell it. Like Brolin’s Frank, Winslet’s Adele is a woman drowning in her own depression, but as the story unfolds we begin to learn that it stems from more than just her husband walking out on her for his secretary.
Although I’ve seen Gattlin Griffith before in Changeling, this is really the first performance of his that caught my eye, and it’s really his character’s perspective (especially through Tobey Maguire’s narration) that the story is told through. It’s a fine piece of acting from Griffith, which is no easy feat when going up against established acting presences in Winslet and Brolin.
The narrative is rather simple, but Labor Day excels at being a character-driven story, which is what Reitman does best. The relationships that develop over the course of the film are what make this movie. Frank may be a convicted felon, but the more time he spends with the Wheeler’s, the more time they all begin to understand each other’s situations and the more of a father-figure he becomes to Henry. I even appreciated a small, supporting role from Clark Gregg as Henry’s father. What could’ve been a cliche, dickhead absentee father type of role that we’ve seen before, proves to be something more by the end of the movie. These are not black and white type characters, and that’s what I enjoyed the most about this film.
Some may be annoyed by the slower pace, and yes, in reality it’s an implausible setup. Who really falls in love over the course of a weekend? Then again, if it’s Kate Winslet, I most definitely would. But, if you take it as more a dream-like fable that I saw it as, you may find yourself all in for this tale that’s touching, yet doesn’t finish as conventionally as you might think. It’s not his best film, but Reitman’s sharp direction, combined with Eric Steelberg’s gorgeous cinematography and strong performances from the three leads and a talented supporting cast featuring Clark Gregg, the invaluable character actor J. K. Simmons and even Dawson himself, James Van Der Beek adds another strong entry to his already impressive filmography. Above all else, this film made me wonder what the hell is it doing stuck in January?
I give Labor Day an A- (★★★½).