Through his first four films, director Jason Reitman created comedic dramas that were effective in both making his audience laugh and move them, from the child pregnancy in Juno to the fear of commitment in Up in the Air and the emotional selfishness of Young Adult. Yet with his newest film Labor Day, Reitman tries to drop the comedy with a serious drama, yet unintentionally gets laughs from an overwrought melodrama seeping with awkwardness and odd handling of the subject matter.
Kate Winslet is Adele, a divorced mother who is still getting over pain caused from her marriage. Adele rarely leaves her house, usually sending her son Henry out on errands while she nervously fears the outside world. Henry tries to fill the void his father left by being the man of the house, yet he realizes he can never take his place since, well, there’s some things a son shouldn’t do with his mother.
During one of Adele and Henry’s expeditions into the world, Henry meets Frank, a escaped convict who demands their help and goes home with the mother and son. At first he seems threatening, yet by the end of the day, he’s doing chores and cooking for the family. Even when he ties Adele up to keep up appearances, he does it with tenderness to show that maybe he’s not such a bad guy. Within twenty-four hours, Adele and Frank are sensually making a metaphor-filled peach pie together and soon the family is actually asking Frank not to leave.
What starts off as a fear induced abduction quickly turns into Frank becoming the father figure that Henry wanted and Frank always wanted to become. Adele is finding love when she thought she had missed her opportunity. Yet the entire situation is so unbelievably silly at points, it’s hard to take the whirlwind romance of a few days seriously. As police officers patrol the streets looking for Frank, Adele and Henry act like the most guilty party, shaking and sweating at even the most routine situations.
Winslet and Josh Brolin as Frank do fine jobs here, with Winslet nailing the deep depression of a woman believing her best days are past her, and Brolin pulling off the misunderstood criminal. But it’s the saccharine script, pushing the idea that they are both prisoners who can help each other escape, and weird dialogue choices that hold these two back. Before Frank shows up, Labor Day almost plays like a romance between mother and son, as Adele and Frank swing in a hammock together as Adele tells Frank about how good sex feels and changes you. Thanks mom, I think I’ll go find another hammock.
While it’s hard to blame Reitman for wanting to try something different, his take on straightforward drama comes off like Frank Darabont directing a Nicolas Sparks novel, with nods to Spielberg and his interest in divorces, as an E.T. poster looms over Henry’s room. Reitman does create a surprisingly effective ending to Adele and Henry’s story, yet it’s story has felt too inconsequential up until then. There’s a strong drama within Reitman, but maybe the unusual story of kidnapper-turned-dreamboat might have been the wrong place to start.