Jason Reitman‘s Labor Day (Paramount, 12.25) is a decently crafted, amber-lighted period drama, based on the 2009 Joyce Maynard book and set during the Labor Day holiday of 1987, about…well, it’s pretty hard to put into a succinct sentence. It begins as a kind of home invasion situation that isn’t quite a hostage or kidnapping thing. It’s a family love story of sorts mixed with a criminal-hiding-out-in-the-home-of-a-single-neurotic-mom-and-her-son story. A spin on a yarn that sinks in every so often. It has a current of sincerity. It tries to do the right thing.
But Labor Day is also about how a 13 year-old boy (played by Gattlin Griffith) can, in a movie like this, turn into a slightly larger alien with CG eyes when he turns 16 or 17, and then reverse course and shrink into Tobey Maguire when he reaches maturity. It’s a horrible third-act miscalculation, and already I’ve been called a dick for mentioning this.
Josh Brolin is the convict and Kate Winlset is the mom. But it’s clear early on that Brolin is the gentle nurturing type who’s looking for a little love (and who isn’t?) and that Winslet misses the company of a good man. So before long the film has turned into Escaped Convict Knows Best (And He Sure Can Cook A Pie!). But it’s one of those films that are driven by a backstory that happened in the past, and that kind of thing irritates me. Or it did today at least.
Brolin delivers his best performance since No Country For Old Men, but — I’m sorry but this has to be said — Reitman’s movie isn’t very satisfying. It doesn’t get it. It’s not a catastrophe but it felt to me like a sensitive humanist misfire.
There was a vibe in the room as Labor Day ended at the Chuck Jones Theatre. The vibe said “hmmm…okay, that happened.” If people like a film they stay in their seats and watch the credits and smile and share their enthusiasm in the lobby. I noticed a lot of people in my area of the theatre bolting as soon as it was over and people generally avoiding conversation and/or talking about stuff other than the film.
But the real truth always comes out on the gondola ride down. Everybody in my gondola was down on Labor Day. And yet every person in Sasha Stone‘s gondola was fairly happy with it. So my gondola just happened to be filled with mean, snarly, judgmental shitheads and Sasha’s just happened to be filled with generous-hearted alpha people who wanted only to understand and “get it” and show the love. Do we pick our gondola-ride partners? Do people say, “I want to ride with that group over there because I didn’t like the film and it looks like they didn’t either”? Or do gondola-riders lie a little bit about how much they liked or were okay with a film? I think my gondola crew was being more honest than Sasha’s, but let’s see how it shakes out.