Friday, January 31, 2014

Meandering In Maynard's Massachusetts

Josh Brolin as Frank and Kate Winslet as Adele in Jason Reitman's drama "Labor Day".
 Paramount Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, January 31, 2014

Jason Reitman directs "Labor Day", a strained, tentative drama adapted from Joyce Maynard's bestselling novel about Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressed single mother whose sheltered existence is enlivened by Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped and wounded convict who commandeers Adele's car and house in the Massachusetts suburbs.  Adele's adolescent son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) jokes about being her husband as he does all the tasks around the house.  Frank is on the run from his past.

Shirt off, body glistening, Mr. Brolin plays a volatile, brooding sexy man of rough trade and gentle persuasion.  You know what will happen soon as Frank enters Adele's home.  We get bondage soft porn as a preview as Frank convinces Adele to be tied up by him.  The camera glides and luxuriates over every rope entanglement on Adele's skin: her wrists, her ankles, her midriff.  It's as if the camera is stroking us.  We are supposed to feel seduced by Frank, a horse whisperer for depressed women.   

Mr. Reitman's film teems with an edgy volatility but its tensions feel overplayed and magnified.  Some of this is down to direction, which Mr. Reitman uses to engineer suspense.  Whatever complexities and yearnings there may have been in Ms. Maynard's novel come up flat on the big screen.  All of the main characters in "Labor Day" look as if they are bursting to say something (or go to the bathroom.)  They can barely contain themselves, except for the droll narrator (an older Henry, played by Tobey Maguire.)  The film's foundations are as flaky as the crust on the delicious peach pie that Frank and Adele sensually collaborate on.  Metaphors and suggestiveness shout through the screen as their fingers dig in.

Nonetheless, "Labor Day" never gets off the ground.  Its pastoral setting and foreboding opening music score portends serious drama but strangely retreats for most of its duration until the final minutes when melodrama reigns and emotions flow.  By then this poor film has long expired its reason to be.  "Labor Day" feels stuck in first gear, and a sudden jolt into third gear late on is the nail in the coffin of what is a contrived enterprise. 

There are plenty of clichés to go around: the disabled neighborhood boy who recognizes Frank as a fugitive but can't speak because of his disability; the ratty local rebel girl as potential love interest for Henry, Frank as a surrogate father for a boy struggling with his hormones, and the lowly, mentally afflicted single woman who just waits to be rescued by a knight in shining armor.  These types feel worn in service of a story that meanders.  There's no narrative glue that holds the events of "Labor Day" together with any conviction, and the film's daily countdown to its title day is rote.

Mr. Reitman has directed two films written by women (both by Diablo Cody, including "Young Adult").  He has good intentions and has previously found ways to make sometimes average material burst to life.  The director's screenplay for "Labor Day" needed another draft or two.  Traces of promise are on the screen but don't get completely fulfilled.  "Labor Day" is empty.  Most tellingly, Adele has little voice as a character.  I wondered: is it because she's depressed? 

My question, and the answer, seems too easy.  Is the use of depression in "Labor Day" a way to avoid sufficiently layering a woman?  Obviously, all of us have a voice.  Yet as a person struggling with depression Adele's illness feels more like a prop in "Labor Day" rather than a character trait tying in to its drama and conflict.  Adele struggles, yes, but the depression she has feels more like an excuse to be subservient and submissive and nothing more.  The message reads: a depressed woman's soft core porn daydream, with a yearning to be laid, pronto!

Ms. Winslet has been excellent playing conflicted women ("Revolutionary Road", "Mildred Pierce", "Little Children".)  She may be the best in the world at it right now, for what that is worth.  In "Labor Day" Ms. Winslet makes vulnerable and conflicted an anthem all its own but I think her Adele deserved a lot more, regardless of Ms. Maynard's book (which I have not read.)  The screenplay lets just about all of these very shallowly rendered characters down.  

Also with: Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, J.K. Simmons, Tom Lipinski, Brooke Smith.

"Labor Day" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality.  The film's running time is one hour and 51 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2014.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW