Labor Day | Director Jason Reitman | Score: 2.5
Bad prose commits many offenses, but its worst sin is one of trite convenience: Things happen not because they make character sense, they happen because they make things easier on the writer — they don’t have to work as hard to cover their contingencies, and can just get on with dragging you to the place they want you to end up.
Jason Reitman’s new film — first screened at TIFF and decidedly not a comedy — is filled with the kind of flimsy suppositions and transparent maneuvering that signify, more than anything else the overwrought source material from which it was hatched. In this case, that being the soggy novel of former J.D. Salinger paramour Joyce Maynard, which seems little more than middle-aged female fan fiction. It concerns a nervous woman named Adele (Kate Winslet), a lonely New Hampshire divorcee; her sensitive 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Minnette); and Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who bursts into their lives at the local supermarket one day and ends up spending a long weekend at their house, fixing things, baking exquisite pies and, naturally, falling in love with Adele.
You read right about the pies. It turns out he can bake like a French chef, in addition to being able fix all the broken stuff in the house, get the car to run smoothly, teach the otherwise nonathletic Hank how to throw a proper fastball, and to teach Adele how to dance. You only think I’m kidding. Shoved unceremoniously in between those bits of claptrap, we also get a series of vignette-like flashbacks that show us Frank’s tortured backstory (serving his country bravely, only to come home to a two-timing wife who smiles cruelly while calling him a fool when he questions the legitimacy of their offspring — the film is at exceedingly great pains to show us just how much of the resulting tragedy wasn’t his fault).
For a ham handed story as flawed as all this — keep in mind it takes all of about half a day for Frank to move from terrifying figure of menace to Adele, to the two of them dancing an impressive Cha Cha together in front of Hank– it’s surprising how much the lead trio bleed themselves into their roles. At least until you consider the actors themselves. Brolin, a chameleon-like thespian, gets to inhabit a rough-and-ready man’s man with skill in nearly every area and a secret heart of unblemished gold; the young, talented Minnette gets to work with two giants and play off his own generous earnestness; and Winslet, so often the single best element in almost any movie she makes, has seemingly yet to read the role of a deeply wounded, anxiety-laced matriarch she hasn’t coveted.
The film does have a certain visual sumptuousness. Not surprisingly, the pie-making scene, in which Frank extols the virtues of well-made crust (“pour dry tapioca like salt on the road to avid sogginess” — helpful!), snaps with visual acuity, but everything else, from the acting to the carefully crafted mise-en-scene gets mauled by its laughably clumsy script. If it were a pie, it would be a maraschino cherry number from Shoprite.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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