Jason Reitman's Labor Day marks new ground for the young director, who made his name with dark-edged comedies about often unlikable people. His adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel breaks from the tone of his earlier films, offering up a drama with thriller elements and a central conflict that does not lend itself to comedy.
The story concerns Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a 13-year-old boy living with his single, emotionally fragile mother Adele (Kate Winslet). While they are shopping for back-to-school clothes the Friday before the titular holiday, Henry is accosted by Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a convict who escaped from police custody and has an open wound. He forces Henry and Adele to take him to their home so that he can recover. Over the course of the long weekend, Frank reveals himself to be a handy guy, a good father figure, and exactly the right man to help Adele get through her issues. As the threesome plan an escape to Canada, however, the law starts circling ever closer.
What's most striking about the movie is its earnestness. From the gravely intoned voice-over from a grown-up Henry that sets up the action, it's apparent that Reitman wants Labor Day to be a major break from his previous films -- an attempt to showcase his versatility. While the picture is visually adept, it turns out to be such a straitlaced endeavor that it never builds any dramatic tension. It doesn't take long before Frank proves that he's not a threat to Henry and Adele, something that comes through in both the screenplay and Brolin's innately humane performance. He's an actor with a talent for playing bad guys and rogues, and while Reitman wants to trade on our memories of his work as a psychotic heavy in movies like Milk and True Grit, Brolin removes the menace from his performance fairly quickly.
That makes the majority of the film a rather goopy love story between the stoic Frank and the quietly suffering Adele, a theme exemplified by a peach-pie-making montage (it turns out that, in addition to fixing things, Frank is a hell of a baker) that aims for a tactile hominess -- all three are shown lovingly smushing together the ingredients with their hands -- but plays like Norman Rockwell directing a commercial for the Peach Growers Council.
Because the movie is told from Henry's point-of-view, the love story never feels immediate or all that compelling, and that's underscored by the scenes of Henry making friends with a female classmate. Their innocent flirtation has all the complexity and naturalism that's missing from the interactions between the adults. Throw in the fact that this possible girlfriend for Henry gets a number of funny lines, and you start to suspect that Reitman is far more comfortable telling their story than the one that's at the center of his movie.
If Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air had anything in common, it was the fact that the protagonists in all three were inveterate smart-asses. Give Reitman credit for attempting to find a different voice for his characters in Labor Day, but don't expect it to be anywhere near as good as his previous films.