September 7, 2013



LABOR DAY is a beautifully performed, well crafted Harlequin romance.  As such, it’s a shock coming from writer/director Jason Reitman (based on Joyce Maynard’s novel), one that goes in a completely different, far more earnest direction than the snap and wit of his Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In the Air or Young Adult.  Reitman remains a superb director of actors, but this doesn’t seem like the most fertile material for him.

The setting is a small town in 1987 Massachusetts, where Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) lives with her on-the-brink-of-manhood son Henry (Gattlin Griffith).  Adele has endured desertion and divorce and has other tragedy in her past, and she’s become almost agoraphobic, having to be coaxed out of the house by Henry for some back-to-school shopping at the start of Labor Day weekend.  Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner has she left her refuge than Adele and Henry are almost immediately waylaid by Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a seemingly brutish escaped convict who forces them to bring him home and holds them hostage.  Over the course of the holiday, however, Frank will reveal himself, in classic romantic novel fashion, to be far more sensitive than violent, and Adele will come out of her shell in a big way.

The arc of this story is all fairly predictable, and although it’s sensitively handled, sometimes–as in an unsubtly erotic exercise in pie-making–it’s borderline ludicrous.  That doesn’t make the movie ineffective, but it works in an old-Hollywood way that feels even more distant than its 1980s setting, like something that could have been shot on the Warner Bros lot in black and white.  Luckily, Winslet and Broken give themselves wholeheartedly to their roles, and they make Labor Day very watchable.  Winslet has been down this awakening-to-love road before, in roles from Little Children to Mildred Pierce, and Adele is far from her most challenging version of the role.  Nevertheless, in her hands each halting step of the character’s journey feels fresh and honest.  Brolin, who’s been struggling since No Country For Old Men to find another part that offers that kind of dimension (after Oliver Stone’s W. turned out to be a disappointment, the best he’s done was his Tommy Lee Jones riff in Men In Black 3), matches marvelously with Winslet, and he makes the gradual revelation of Frank’s true nature feel like more than a cliche.  Griffith is fine as the young Henry, conveying the confusions of his developing reactions to the convict and his own mother, although ultimately it’s a stock part.

Reitman provides very sturdy direction, dotting the character stories with tense moments as Adele and Henry first try to escape from Frank, and later try to protect him, and charting each step of the treks that the protagonists make, from the start of that fateful weekend to a many-years-later epilogue that will put lumps in plenty of throats.  As usual, Reitman’s technical team, which includes cinematographer Eric Steelberg, composer Rolfe Kent, and editor Dana Glouberman, provides first-rate support.

Labor Day is fine for what it is, but any number of journeymen directors could have delivered a product nearly as good with these actors and this basic material, in comparison to Reitman’s other films to date, which have built a more distinctive personal vision.  There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a filmmaker wanting to try varied genres and styles–it just feels like this one is so conservative and pat that it’s hard to see how it advances Reitman’s skills in any meaningful way.  Making us care about George Clooney’s hatchet man in Up In the Air was an accomplishment; evoking warm feelings for this nice, loving trio is just business.  Labor Day (unlike Reitman’s last film, the much more jagged Young Adult) should find an appreciative audience when it opens on Christmas Day, and it seems like that may have been the reason it was made.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."