Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: "Labor Day"

Director: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 111 minutes

While Jason Reitman deserves credit for branching out with his latest film, he's hardly deserving of praise for the final product this time around. A mishmash of poor decisions and shoddy story telling, Labor Day comes across more as a polished Lifetime movie, rather than the latest work from an exciting young director. In venturing outside of his comfort zone, Reitman has made the mistake of indulging in all of the worst tendencies of his new chosen genre. The result is awkward, boring, and fatally unconvincing.

Set over Labor Day weekend in 1987, Reitman's adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel centers on Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet). The latter is a shut in of a single mom, unable to rebound from her divorce to Henry's father (Clark Gregg). On her monthly sojourn to the local convenience store, however, Adele's life changes with the introduction of Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who inserts himself into Adele and Henry's life. 

Right off of the bat, the set up is unconvincing. The level of contrivance present, which rests upon Henry's gullibility and naiveté, isn't the sort of flaw the film is able to make up for over time. Instead, it undermines everything that follows. The psychological tension inherent to the set up never materializes, which leaves Labor Day as a goopy slog of a romantic drama. 

Reitman approaches the material by throwing every trick in the book at it, and it's rather depressing to watch. Voice over pervades the entire film, spelling out even the most obvious details. Meanwhile, Rofle Kent's score, though fine on its own, is overused to the point of self-parody. Rather than compliment the footage, Kent's music strains the create an atmosphere that the writing and direction are laughably incapably of conjuring. Reitman also tries, unsuccessfully, to build Frank and Adele's backstories through laughably "arty" flashback sequences that do little to truly get under the skin. If anything, they only make the whole project seem even more worthless.   

Even the two stars seem unable to fully connect with their characters. Though Winslet and Brolin are perfectly suited to their respective roles, the material they're given is so thoroughly lacking that its no wonder their performances suffer. Winslet, in the more emotive role, is particularly disappointing as the damaged Adele. All of the nervousness and wariness Winslet communicates feels halfhearted at best. Though it's hard to pinpoint whether the fault lies more with the writing and directing or the actress can be difficult. Either way, it's sorely lacking work from an actress who is capable of so much more. Brolin, meanwhile, is effective enough without having to really do anything that requires true effort. His character almost never seems to be in any true danger, which leaves the actor with little to work with, given that his main conflict revolves around whether or not he'll be captured by the authorities. 

The biggest disappointment in the whole mess, though, is Reitman's direction. The director made a name for himself with sharply observant comedies like Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult. His transition to full blown drama, however lacks any of the success of his previous work. His indulgence in tired techniques (heavy-handed music, voice over) feels desperate. There's no intelligence behind any of it, and it all grows old far too quickly. His adaptation surrenders to the dramatic contrivances of its source material, rendering it all painfully trite. Labor Day isn't an intriguing new direction for a rising filmmaker. It's a numbingly bad misfire that ought to be stricken from the resumes of everyone involved. 

Grade: D+

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