Above: Making a peach pie (Gattlin Griffith, Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet)
is actually one of the tastier parts of “Labor Day.”
By Dominique Paul Noth
I’m always curious about movies involving honored names that rapidly disappear from public view. Sometimes they’re just failures, sometimes the studios were too busy peddling other wares, sometimes the buzz was right, sometimes wrong, sometimes invisible.
“Labor Day” just lay there – and that was curious. It hit all the major festivals at the end of 2013 to qualify for awards but most moviegoers never heard of it. Its director, Jason Reitman (son of Ivan), has been much admired for quiet observation of the American fabric in the fine “Juno” and “Up in the Air.”
And is not Kate Winslet a big name and honored actress? Josh Brolin is no slouch either. The supporting cast may not be household famous but always do strong work and are most recognizable – Brooke Smith first hit attention as the kidnap victim in “Silence of the Lambs” and is one of the few actresses who can be appealing in her nastiness. JK Simmons is all over TV (“Law and Order” and “Oz”), featured in a new series (“Growing Up Fisher”), tireless in insurance commercials and effective in multiple character roles.
Yet “Labor Day” for all that settled for a thin Golden Globes nomination for Winslet, was shut of the Oscars and didn’t even show up in Milwaukee until January. Part of the problem was a misleading sales pitch – “love, passion and betrayal as seen through the eyes of an adolescent and the man he becomes” made it sound voyeuristic.
The movie is actually a quiet, almost murmuringly quiet portrait of lonely people in rural America, drawn together by unlikely circumstances (unlikely is an understatement) to bond as a family while hiding the magnetic stranger from the law. They must fool preying eyes in a world that immediately identifies unlikely affection as sexual criminality run amuck and romantic desire as depravity.
Good intent is the road paved to you know where and it sure doesn’t salvage “Labor Day.” These are pretty smart people involved. Reitman has a nice observational style -- even the guiding commentary and intrusive flashbacks are more about developing a mystery than artificially agitating.
The actors play it natural – Winslet as the watchful depressed mother drawn to a fugitive, Brolin as the fugitive more menacing in expectations than in actual behavior, Gattlin Griffith as the teenage boy confused about how to protect his mother as he finds the fugitive a more acceptable father figure than the “normal” upright citizen who abandoned them for a new family.
Unless you’re a good guesser, we are two-thirds through the movie before the “Labor Day” title is explained. Nor does Reitman spell out the poetic metaphysics behind the quiet style and late revelations. It’s sort of like a Wallace Stevens poem. If your mind is working, and you don’t fall asleep at the pace, you’ll discover that the central lovers are both prisoners. She’s a victim of her own body and domestic expectations. He’s a murderer on the run with far more traditional family values than those pursuing him. One is trapped by biology, the other by the criminal justice system.
In a cameo, Simmons as the intrusive neighbor next door is quietly scarier than the fugitive. Smith is the mother who doesn’t hesitate to hit her handicapped child. Reitman is suggesting these are part of the normal but endlessly intrusive people who eventually twist the son’s thinking -- until he matures into Tobey Maguire.
All that would be nice and philosophically viable – if the movie were psychologically viable. Try as the actors and director do, the story remains unbelievable. Brolin’s fugitive is too good to be true, a Mr. Fixit, baseball coach and expert pie maker eager to learn the tango and take his new family across the border. Winslet subdues her natural fire to act like a mentally disturbed docile mother, seriously unconvincing in such complacency. The story takes its time to unfold and then scurries through to conclusion. To his credit, Reitman seldom gooses it, but he never brings it to life either.
There are far better pieces of storytelling and dramatic insights out there. That doesn’t mean that several years from now, someone won’t find “Labor Day” on late-night television and wonder why its quieter meanings were so ignored at the box office. In today’s sunshine, the competition is simply better.