The Cloying, Awful Labor Day

An extended unpacking of why director Jason Reitman's latest movie is (by far) his worst
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Paramount

What. Just. Happened.

When those are the words passing through one’s head as one exits the cinema, it typically means that the film just viewed was either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. In the case of Jason Reitman’s latest movie, the lugubrious Labor Day, I’m afraid it’s the latter.

To date, Reitman’s work had been distinguished by an acerbic, pop-inflected sense of irony: his promising debut Thank You for Smoking; his out-of-nowhere charmer Juno; his Clooneyfied mainstream affirmation Up in the Air; and his interesting but ultimately half-baked Young Adult. All four had their moments of sentiment, but none were what one would call overly sentimental. Indeed, I’d assumed that if Reitman were ever to deliver a genuine stinker, it would be by erring on the side of sarcasm.

But deliver a genuine stinker he has, and its failings lie in precisely the opposite direction. Labor Day (based on the novel by Joyce Maynard) is the heart-string-tugging tale of a teenage boy, his lonesome mother, and the escaped fugitive who, as they say, “changes their lives forever.” It is the most cloying, maudlin movie I’ve seen in a long while, so saccharine that its very memory makes my teeth ache to the root. The audience at the screening I attended seemed largely to agree: It is surely a bad sign when a film’s would-be weepiest moments primarily elicit tears of laughter.

That said, there is a place in the world for cloying, maudlin melodrama (it’s called “Lifetime”), and if you find yourself in the mood for something akin to The Bridges of Madison County only more so, then feel free to make your way to the nearest showing of Labor Day. But by all means stop reading this column now. For in the interest of explaining what an astonishing pile of overwrought mush the movie is, I intend to offer a great many spoilers. You’ve been warned.

The year is 1987, and divorced, damaged mom Adele (Kate Winslet) lives alone with her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself,” Henry explains in Hallmarkian voiceover. (More on this later.) But one day, when mother and son make their monthly pilgrimage to Price-Mart—post-divorce, Adele has become so twitchily neurotic that she is virtually incapable of leaving the house—a handsome, goateed stranger (Josh Brolin) asks them, with just the slightest hint of menace, for a lift. He has escaped from prison, it turns out, where he was serving an 18-year sentence for murder. He has Adele take him to her house, where he very gently ties her to a chair, explaining that this way she will be able to truthfully tell authorities that she is a kidnappee, rather than a criminal abettor.

And that is the very last even marginally unpleasant thing the escaped felon, Frank, does for the remainder of the film. That night he cooks Adele and Henry chili; in the morning it’s homemade biscuits. (Barbeque will have to wait a day or two.) Over the course of the long Labor Day weekend for which the film is named, Frank fixes a basement wall, a loose stair, and a squeaky door; conducts auto repairs and an oil change; replaces electrical fuses and the filter on the furnace; does the laundry (and irons it); washes the floor (and waxes it); and, using Amish techniques, single-handedly raises a barn in the backyard. Okay, I made up that last one.

Between his bouts of This-Old-House fervor, Frank teaches shy, awkward Henry how to hit a baseball, and sweetly connects with a disabled, wheelchair-bound neighborhood boy whose mother is cruel and negligent.   

And then there’s The Pie. When the man who lives across the street (J.K. Simmons, onscreen for approximately 12 seconds) drops off a bucket of peaches at the house, Adele frets that there are too many to eat and she’ll likely wind up throwing them away. Not so, declares Frank, who evidently shared a cell with Martha Stewart: They will make pie. It would be difficult to overstate just how much screen time is devoted to the pie-making, and how aggressively the process is fetishized. One shot, in which Frank, Adele, and Henry knead a bowl of peach-mush together, fingers pulpily entangled, would have earned the movie an NC-17 rating if the MPAA were doing its job. Throughout, Frank maintains a steady patter of culinary homilies: “people pay too much attention to recipes, when all you have to do is feel,” “all these fancy gadgets, but sometimes the best tool is right there attached to your body.”

Speaking of which: Yes, Frank and Adele do get it on. And while they do—I promise I’m not making this up—Henry sits in the bedroom next door, contemplating the word “rhythm.”

By Frank’s third day at the house, he and Adele have concluded they are in love, and have concocted a plan to run away to Canada with Henry. Yeah, that’ll work.

The story unfolds with an earnestness so implacable that on the rare occasions when a bit of humor sneaks into the proceedings it feels like an uninvited party guest. One such example is Henry’s chance meeting of a nosy, precocious girl (Maika Monroe) whom he winds up telling more than he intended.

It’s around this point that we at last learn, via the culmination of a series of flashbacks, how it is that the otherwise beatification-worthy Frank wound up in prison for murder. It seems that when he was a handsome young man, he had a pretty young wife and an adorable baby. But his pretty young wife was cheating on him and the baby was probably not his. When he confronted her about these transgressions she sneered at him and he pushed her. She of course fell down, hit her head on a radiator, and died. I have two thoughts regarding this development, one narrow and one broader.

The narrow thought is that an even minimally sophisticated film probably would have concluded that it was enough either for the wife to be so awful that it’s hard to mourn her death or for said death to be completely accidental. But Labor Day pulls out every stop in order to render Frank blame-free: He didn’t try to kill his wife—but even if he had, could you blame him?

The slightly broader thought is that I would like to propose a 50-year moratorium on people dying in the movies merely because someone pushes them. No more falling down staircases or against marble fireplaces or over open dishwasher doors or what have you. In the real world, the act of pushing very rarely results in death or permanent disability. But in cinema it’s a convenient way to simultaneously engineer a dramatic event and dispel responsibility for it. I have been unable to do the math, for obvious reasons, but I have a nagging suspicion that more people may have died of pushing in movies than in all of actual human history. Enough already.

But back to Labor Day. After a few implausibly constructed cliffhangers—the neighbor who walks into the house without knocking, the bank manager who grills Adele on why she’s emptying her account, the policeman who insists on driving Henry home and then insists on helping Adele pack boxes into the station wagon—Frank is finally (big spoiler!) captured by the police. Which is extremely sad, because there is no way in the world that Adele can afford to hire herself a new chef/housekeeper/repairman/gigolo/baseball coach—especially not one who cleans up as nice as Josh Brolin.

Which brings us to our denouement: Frank goes back to prison, with an additional 15 years added to his sentence for kidnapping. When Adele tries to tell the prosecutor that no kidnapping took place, he quite rightly points out that either she was kidnapped or she harbored a fugitive, and it’d be a shame for Henry if his mom went to jail. So Adele goes back to her life of lonely suffering, Henry goes to live with his dad (an underused Clark Gregg) for a while and then comes back at age 17, played by a new actor who bears very little resemblance to the one we’ve grown accustomed to. (It’s an age difference of four years! It really ought to be manageable with the same performer.) This new “Henry” takes his first stab at baking—a pie for his mother, naturally.

Fast-forward 20 years, and we meet the now-adult Henry, played by Tobey Maguire. To which I can only say: Why in the world would you cast the eternally adolescent Maguire in a role whose only purpose is to convey adulthood? Making matters still worse, he’s the one who’s conducted Henry’s voiceover throughout the film—though viewers could be forgiven for not noticing, given that his voice is virtually indistinguishable from of that the 15-year-old who plays Henry for the bulk of the film. Richard Dreyfuss in Stand By Me this is not.

Which brings me to the movie’s final, excruciating twist: Frank, who’s about to be released from prison, contacts Henry to see if Adele is still available. (She is, and the two reunite to live happily ever after.) How did Frank track Henry down? Well, the latter has become a successful pastry chef(!) and Frank saw a glossy magazine article with a photo of a peach pie, and recognized it as the same pie he’d taught Henry to make all those years before, and, well, you get the picture.

What possessed Reitman to make this dull, cliché-ridden, treacle-delivery device? I wouldn’t dare to hazard a guess. But if someone were to tell me that Reitman had been kidnapped by an escaped convict and held hostage until he helped him tell his side of the story, I wouldn’t discount the possibility.   

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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