Another film you more than likely missed in the theaters is Labor Day, directed by Jason Reitman with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. (I’d been following it since filming began, since the story takes place and was filmed in the suburbs west of Boston. But I digress.) The movie is a sweet, old-fashioned love story. The type that could easily have been made by Howard Hawks in the 1940s or Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, the type about which it could appropriately be said, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. Until this one came along, that is.
Critics, for the most part, savaged the film. Perhaps they’d have found it more plausible if it starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (or Gloria Grahame) or even Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. It was the first of Reitman’s films to earn a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes, let alone fail to earn a single Academy Award nomination (although Winslet did earn an obligatory Golden Globe nod. The HFPA loves her).
Never one to let someone else tell me what I should like, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that Reitman took a chance on a genre completely out of his comfort zone. I enjoyed seeing Josh Brolin’s tender side. And of course, I enjoyed Kate Winslet as Adele, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who not only finds love, but manages to find herself again, over the course of this one strange and sticky long weekend.
It’s not really a spoiler if I mention the pie-making scene in which Brolin’s escaped convict, Frank, teaches Winslet’s blowzy single mother how to bake a peach pie. It rivals Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and the clay in Ghost.
But that’s getting ahead of myself. There is no “meet cute” for Frank and Adele, it’s more a “meet terrifying”. It’s 1987. The agoraphobic Adele and her 13 year old son Henry (an amazing Gattlin Griffith) have made the painful journey out of the house and into town because school is about to start and Henry has outgrown his old clothes. She’s terrified, he’s patient. While Adele trepidatiously pushes her cart through the store, Henry wanders off to look at comic books. Out from behind the rack pops a bleeding man. Having recently escaped from prison, Frank forces Adele and Henry to drive him to their house where he proceeds to hold them hostage.
There is, of course, a lot more to Frank than his arrest record. The house is, of course, as unkempt and rundown as Adele herself and soon, as only happens in the movies, the hostage situation dissolves into something else entirely and we see Frank teaching Henry how to throw a baseball; he waxes floors and even irons. And again, as only happens in the movies, pretty soon it’s not only Adele’s car that gets a tune-up.
For her part, Adele used to be a bright, vibrant woman until tragedy struck. As the adult Henry explains in voice-over (Tobey Maguire), “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself”. It’s plain to see from the beginning that these two people need each other.
Reitman admits that the hardest hurdle raised by the story was why this woman would take in this strange man in the first place, one who’s bleeding and probably dangerous to boot. And what about Henry, who is obviously a mature and savvy 13, why wouldn’t he stop her? But if you’re along for the ride, you understand. It’s because Adele sees the way he treated her son, and she responds to his courtesy toward her as well, and whenever she thinks he’ll behave one way, he surprises her.
Adele also can’t bring herself to turn her back on Frank’s wound. Despite the fact that she can’t take care of herself, she has the skill to care for Frank. Again, we know that there is much more to the stories of these people, some of it we’re shown, some of it we intuit. If you’ve seen and enjoyed any of Reitman’s previous films, you know he is a master storyteller, and one of the biggest reasons is that he understands human nature. He helps us to understand that these two wounded people just fit.
Okay, okay, before the eyerolling begins, let me add that I can understand how you might have some difficulty buying into all of that, at least on the face of it. But it is Winslet and Brolin, (such an unexpected pairing in real life and on film), and their earthy, sexually-charged chemistry that sells the entire package. Sure it’s a preposterous premise. But it was no less preposterous when Joyce Maynard published the novel in 2009. It became a bestseller and achieved widespread critical acclaim. Why any of this would be any less easy to accept in film form, from a cast and crew as talented as this movie had, doesn’t make much sense to me.
Jason Reitman read the book and immediately knew he wanted to adapt it for a film. He told a TIFF 2013 audience, “I wanted to know why these broken people needed each other, and slowly, the answer unveiled itself to me. I was overwhelmed. Parts of the book leveled me, and I cried.”
For my money, Labor Day is a warm and lovely little film about longing, hope, and the redemptive power of love, beautifully photographed by Reitman regular Eric Steelberg, with an evocative score by another regular, Rolfe Kent (who also composed the score for Dom Hemingway).
It was a novel, not a memoir. It’s a movie, not a documentary. If it’s a good story, emotionally gripping, well told and well acted, isn’t that enough?
Labor Day also stars Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, and Brooke Smith. It’s out on dvd and blu-ray today, August 5.