Hatewatch #2: Labor Day (One for the pie fetishists)
In this new regular feature, I am travailing through the world of bad films to find hidden gems, terrible disappointments, and the worst of the worst. Films are rated on a scale of: ‘Good’, ‘Not Bad’, ‘So Bad It’s Good’, ‘Bad’, ‘Boring’, and ‘THE FUCKING WORST’.
Before 2013’s Labor Day, Jason Reitman was known for caustic, bitter, cynical films and characters. Making his debut with Thank You For Smoking, the story of a pro-cigarette lobbyist, Reitman went on to helm Up In The Air, in which George Clooney’s work-obsessed “professional firer” finally met a woman he really cared about and promptly discovered it was all a sham, and Young Adult, a blazing character study starring Charlize Theron as one of the most spiteful, messed up protagonists in film history. Even Juno, his quirky mainstream breakthrough, featured a teenage character with the worldview of a wisecracking thirty-year-old and a married man leaving his wife alone with their newly-adopted baby.
It seemed odd then, when Reitman followed up the remarkably acidic Young Adult with Labor Day. Tonally, the films are total opposites. Where Young Adult takes place in seedy bars and moonlit football fields, Labor Day unfolds under the blazing sunshine that accompanies summer’s end. Where Young Adult had hatred and bitterness in place of heart, Labor Day has nothing but heart and sappy romance. Most importantly, where Young Adult had memorable characters and a razor sharp screenplay, Labor Day wastes great actors on empty characters, and tells perhaps the least interesting love story ever told.
13-year-old Henry (Gatlin Griffith) lives alone with depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet). It’s suggested throughout the film that Adele has a negative influence on Henry; he’s timid, wimpy, and, to his Dad (Clark Gregg)’s horror, interested in dancing (shock and horror indeed). Adele’s so anxious she rarely leaves the house, making Henry run errands. On a rare trip to the grocery store, they run into the wounded Frank (Josh Brolin), a mysterious man who all but takes the pair hostage and hides at their house. An escaped convict, Frank seems like a dangerous presence, but over the course of a weekend, he reveals himself as perhaps the best thing for the lonely mother and son.
In Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, Reitman has two outstanding actors carrying the film, so saddling them with lame one note characters is baffling. Winslet gave one of the most energetic performances of all time as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Labor Day’s Adele is an absolute drip. She’s drowsy, nervous, and completely passive.
Brolin has often been the best thing in mediocre films, and he’s easily the best part of Labor Day. However, Frank is still a terribly written character. What’s the opposite of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? The Handsome Vulnerable Manly Man. Frank is a practical handyman, a sensitive lover, father figure, and patriarchal protector all rolled into one. There’s nothing he can’t do and nobody he can’t charm.
Frank’s first act after arriving at Adele and Henry’s home is to tie Adele up and feed her his delicious homemade chili. This is the first creepy, inappropriate moment in a film full of them. There’s no good reason for Frank to tie Adele up apart from to feed her in a scene that I think is meant to be sexy, but just feels uncomfortable. That’s nothing, however, compared to the incestuous theme running throughout Labor Day. Henry constantly watches his Mum and, whether it’s Griffith’s acting or Reitman’s direction, it feels wrong. This is amplified by a hideous scene in which Adele explains to her teenage son what sex feels like while they lie together in a hammock. I really don’t know what Reitman was going for with this scene, but the ick factor is unbelievable.
Speaking of inappropriately sexual moments, let’s talk about the pie scene. The pie scene is perhaps the only thing anybody remembers about Labor Day. Donated a batch of peaches by neighbour J.K. Simmons (who appears for one scene, brings the acting goods, and leaves the film for better career opportunities), Brolin suggests using his incredible baking skills (because of course handsome prisoner Dad is adept at cooking as well) to make a peach cobbler. He and Adele then proceed to re-enact Ghost’s famous pottery scene, only the clay is replaced by lots and lots of peaches. Did you know cooking a pie isn’t erotic in the slightest? I’m sure you did, because you’re not sexually misguided, but Jason Reitman didn’t when he asked Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet to make lusty eyes at each other while up to their elbows in pastry. I’ve seen personal safety ads about VD that were more erotic than this film.
Nothing really happens for much of Labor Day’s interminable two-hour running time. The three hang around the house not really doing much. Police search for Frank, not very successfully. Henry bunks off from school and gets caught by Officer James Van Der Beek (played by the bloke from Dawson’s Creek). The film almost gets exciting when the officer refuses to leave the house and Frank nearly gets caught, but this quickly finishes and the film falls back into tedium.
Adele’s pushy neighbour drops off her handicapped son in a weird scene that borders on bad taste when the boy recognises Frank as the criminal but nobody listens to him. A sparky teenage girl shows up as some kind of foil to Henry and the two discuss his Mum’s sex life in another creepy scene. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something about seeing two young children talking frankly about sex that felt odd, especially in a film as apparently wholesome as Labor Day. The liberal sex talk and weird romantic angle probably could have made the film provocative and memorable if it weren’t so soul-drainingly slow.
Maika Monroe, who would go on to find popularity as a scream queen in films like The Guest and It Follows, plays Frank’s wife in flashbacks which reveal why our kind-hearted kidnapper was arrested for murder. Of course, he’s basically innocent of everything. A decorated war hero, poor Frank returned home to find his wife was a promiscuous floozy who wasn’t even sure if Frank’s child was his. Labor Day could have been memorable if it revealed Frank was an actual psychopath, but instead we learn he’s a tormented husband and father who accidentally killed his wife and left his baby to drown in a bathtub (an extraordinarily dark twist that felt out of place in a film as inconsequential as this).
After nearly two hours of sexual tension between a murderer, a depressed single mother, and a teenage boy, the police find Frank in a turn of events not properly explained in the film. I have to admit, I found this sequence genuinely moving. Frank might be a one note character, but Brolin’s still a sublime actor and the scene in which he sheds a tear as he’s led away from the house affected me, despite not previously caring about the relationship whatsoever. Had Reitman let his actors properly emote instead of playing stuffy repressed romantics, maybe Labor Day could have had more energy and life.
In the film’s closing section, we get a timeline of events after the film. Frank goes to prison for thirty years. Adele becomes even more depressed and sends Henry away to live with his disapproving Dad. Henry grows up to become Spiderman and reveals that Frank’s sexy pie making was so inspirational he decided to become a baker. Tobey Maguire is a stroke of genius bit of casting, as he’s the only adult who could look creepy enough to be believable as grown up Henry. Eventually, Josh Brolin in bad old man makeup writes to Peter Parker asking for his Mum’s address (he’s been waiting thirty years to make another pie with her), and he reunites with Kate Winslet in bad old woman makeup, making for a limp, lame conclusion to this syrupy nonsense.
It can’t be overstated just how boring Labor Day is. At 90 minutes, with the creepiness removed, this might have been passable fluff. Even though it runs under two hours, Labor Day feels twice as long, and drains you of any goodwill by the conclusion. The acting is pretty mediocre but how could anyone give a good performance when the characters are so one note and weird? Labor Day contains a few memorably baffling moments when it touches on incest and the sexuality of pies, but these moments only serve to illuminate how bland the rest of the film is. Technically, it’s decent, and on paper this could have been watchable, but Labor Day is so interminable it’s physically painful.
Final Verdict: BORING.
NEXT TIME ON HATEWATCH: The Cobbler
By Harry J. Ford
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