' Cinema Romantico: Labor Day

Monday, May 12, 2014

Labor Day

If Nicholas Sparks wrote a novel about an agoraphobic, he might have dreamed up Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day”, an often excruciatingly schmaltzy gaze into the heart of a woman, what ails it and its inevitable masculine remedy. Set over Labor Day weekend in a 1987 more reminiscent of 1955 Hill Valley, a prison escapee serving 18 years for murder, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her 13 year old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) with a bloody gash asking for a ride. Frightened, they comply, and he directs them back home where he intends to rest and then catch a train out of town. Instead he becomes ensconced in their insulated family dynamic, almost straight away assuming household tasks - a little car repair, a little ironing, waxing and mopping floors, and in spite of being an outlaw whose face covers flyers plastered to telephone poles he takes Henry out in the backyard for a game of catch. He’s a Man and a Father Figure.


To be fair to both director Jason Reitman and his cast, they select a tone of outright earnestness and entirely maintain it to the end. Reitman opens the dispenser pouring spot and unabashedly drowns the entire project in syrup, filling every frame with visual sentiment, letting momentary cracks of sunlight dance in and out to symbolize the rays of hope the expectedly misunderstood Frank provides. (The truth of his story is sprinkled throughout in flashback snippets.) Winslet and Brolin remain committed, never resorting to parody, even as story developments threaten to (and sometimes do). One scene in particular that finds this makeshift family constructing a homemade pie has become a popular target of detractors, and not wrongly. Its symbolism is garish and its rendering is mawkish. On those grounds, it can be argued as awful, but it also acknowledges what it is and owns it.

Not that this is a good thing. “Labor Day” might have done better as a chamber piece with primarily two people rather than three. Henry gets a sorta girlfriend (Brighid Fleming), a new girl in town, the only person in the film, actually, that is has likely heard “Who's That Girl”, who exists just to lend advice and spur him forward. Come to think of it, she is never seen with anyone else, including the parents she alludes to, and only materializes when needed. It’s possible she’s make-believe. The character of Adele, closed-off and virtually shut-down since her divorce to Henry’s father, has the potential to be interesting. Henry’s father (Clark Gregg), in fact, delivers a brief monologue explaining that her passion, her hunger for life, was her downfall, that such sheer blinding emotion left her without any. It is an idea talked about more than it is expressed but still, the notion of this woman and her son on their own coming to grips with the peaks and valleys of emotional anxiety is compelling. Winslet is ready to go there. The material is not.

Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” was another film derided by some for schmaltz, yet when Susan Sarandon’s character loses her husband to death, she refuses to mope, repairs her car, teaches herself to cook, learns to dance, takes stand-up comedy courses. She’s sad for the loss of her husband, as she makes clear, but the character also demonstrates that she get back up and exist on her own. This is the polar opposite of Adele Wheeler, who, as it turns out, isn’t so much an agoraphobic in the clinical sense as a lonely ol’ woman waitin’ ‘round for another manly man to stride in and change her oil. Her character demonstrates that she can’t get back up and live on her own. She’s co-dependent on a Harlequin hero. The closing voiceover made me throw up in my mouth a little.

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