Joyce Maynard may be best known as the college dropout-turned-novelist who recently tried to turn a profit on some old correspondence with J.D. Salinger. Lauded with praise in her youth, she was a regular contributor to publications from Seventeen to The New York Times. But to look at Labor Day, it seems like she must have spent some serious time at Harlequin Enterprises. It may have two solid leading performances and some gorgeous cinematography, but even Jason Reitman — the director who made me love a Diablo Cody screenplay — can’t save a story this bad.
In 1987, Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). His father (Clark Gregg) left for another woman, with whom he raises her son from a previous marriage and a young daughter together. Henry’s dad offers to take custody of him, but Henry feels obligated to support his mother, who is having a hard time of it.
Then, on the one monthly trip out of the house to a big-box store Henry coaxes his mother on, they’re approached by an injured Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who begs a ride back to their place. He’s on the run, having escaped from prison by jumping out of a hospital window after an emergency appendectomy. But he’s really not a bad guy, you see; he’s oh-so-manly, cooking and cleaning and fixing up the house and being a good father figure for Henry over the long weekend. It’s little wonder that Adele decides to pack up Henry and the house and run away to Canada with Frank by the next Tuesday.
Actually, it’s not Frank’s character that makes it unsurprising, it’s Adele’s. Henry’s dad hits the nail on the head when he stops just short of the word “depression” early on; Adele is clearly depressed, or possibly bipolar — the inciting incident is held back until the third act because Mystery — and she is in desperate need of serious professional help. What she does not need is a romance-novel’s idea of “the perfect man”, complete with just a touch of danger in that he killed his first wife — of course it was an accident and she deserved it anyway for not seeing and respecting what a perfect man he was. Henry doesn’t fall short in his efforts to support her because he’s not a husband; he falls short because he’s not the trained psychiatrist she really needs.
And Winslet actually does rather a good job at portraying a depressed, codependent agoraphobe, desperate for someone to save her from herself. Brolin also delivers as a man who can be sweetly powerful when he gets his way, but is willing to turn his power to violence when he doesn’t. This isn’t a love story; it’s Stockholm Syndrome, with an impressionable twelve-year-old boy caught in the middle of the hostage situation.
Reitman presents the complexities of Maynard’s exposition well, weaving in hazy flashbacks that gradually lengthen and sharpen until we know both Frank’s and Adele’s full back-stories, but holding back information for no reason that drives the story itself is a cheap move in the first place. Reitman’s technique is great, but the purpose is lousy.
And that’s pretty much the story of the whole movie: a wonderful execution of a terrible story.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.