Based on the Joyce Maynard novel of the same name, Labor Day (2013) sees Canadian director Jason Reitman undertake a marked departure from the forthright yet blithe approach that made his indie-spirited offerings such as Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011) such mainstream hits. Here, Reitman cavorts with heightened melodrama and nervous tension in a tale of vague suburban Stockholm syndrome within eighties picket fence America. Told through the impressionable vantage point of its young protagonist Henry (Dylan Minette) and narrated via his future self (Toby Maguire), Labor Day initially looks like a coming-of-age tale about an adolescent boy’s education in masculinity.
Henry’s homely mother Adele (Academy Award winner Kate Winslet) is a woman unhelpfully described by her ex-husband as being “in love with love”, whilst also suffering from agoraphobia and crippling depression – evoked not from her husband leaving, but rather the absence of romance in her life. However, when Frank (a typically gruff Josh Brolin), a wounded fugitive on the run, takes refuge in their home, Henry and Adele find themselves presented with the father/husband figure they’ve both desperately been crying out for. Fundamentally lacking the sincerity and delicately woven candour required to articulate this type of psychosomatic anxiety, Reitman’s woozy Labor Day unfortunately reduces down to an unintentionally hilarious series of gaffs and unforgivable narrative oversights.
Despite emitting the odd pang of emotional resonance, this five-day romance (that’s all it takes for Brolin’s man-on-the run to woo Adele) is comprised of numerous strained scenes that demand that Frank wrap his arms around ‘his woman’ – a quivering volcano of suppressed desire. Perhaps the worst example of this forged intimacy is an impromptu scene of pie-baking. “Let’s put a roof on this house,” Frank suggests whilst adding the unpalatable pastry lid to their crudely-forged peach cobbler. Far more engaging when seen through the observant and curious gaze of its young protagonist, Labor Day’s use of ellipsis – found primarily in the film’s unintelligible flashbacks – make deciphering the morally questionable back story highly problematic, not to mention almost entirely rewardless.
Reitman’s listless stroll down memory lane feels ripped straight out of a faded photo album, making the endless contrived dialogue appear even more synthetic and forced – built on tender recollections instead of firm details or palpable emotion. Like an eighties Bonnie and Clyde – if the king and queen of New Hollywood had decided to bake, do odd chores and learn salsa together rather than rob banks – Labor Day is a picturesque but ultimately mind-numbing slice of American pie. It’s a genuine shame that its sickly filling of personal tragedy and emotional dependency has been made so sickeningly sweet due to Reitman’s own gratuitous flourishes.
This review was originally published on 15 October 2013 as part of our extensive London Film Festival coverage.