Jason Reitman has made some pretty funny movies before, from the Oscar winning Juno to the underrated Young Adult. However, nothing in his filmography is as hilarious as his first foray into serious drama, Labour Day, a film which is seriously asking for us to believe in Josh Brolin as the patron saint of masculinity.
It’s 1987, and 13 year old Henry Wheeler (played by Gattlin Griffith, although narrated by the second best Spiderman Tobey McGuire as the present day Henry) is days away from the end of summer vacation and the start of a new term in a non-specific American town. He lives with his divorced mother Adele (Kate Winslet), and often visits his father’s (Clark Gregg) new family- he doesn’t have anything to complain about life-wise, apart from the fact both parents have an almost perverse habit of giving him the birds and the bees talk as frequently as possible. At the supermarket one day, a man covered in blood approaches Henry and asks for a ride- his mother refuses, so he pulls a gun on Henry. This is our introduction to romantic lead/escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a man who will happily shoot a child and is responsible for the death of his girlfriend, but we are supposed to root for as the object of our heroine’s affections. Needless to say, the film isn’t successful on this front.
Maybe it’s Reitman’s background in comedy that hinder his attempts to make a sincere drama here- after all, the central romance is only slightly more ridiculous than Charlize Theron’s attempts to get back with her happily married high school flame in Young Adult, and somehow ten times more cringe inducing, albeit unintentionally this time. Upon arriving at the house, Frank does all the housework, from changing the spare tires to cleaning the gutters- something which is narrated in Tobey McGuire’s present day voiceover like this was the significant event, and not the fact they have a fucking escaped convict in the house. Soon, the whole family bond by baking a pie in a scene that is one “Unchained Melody” away from being a Ghost rip-off- and the shot of Winslet and Brolin’s hands entwined in pastry is used repeatedly as shorthand for sex (yes, really).
The main problem with the film is that it’s narrated by Henry, despite the narrative focusing on his mother’s relationship. Whenever it focuses solely on him, and how the event is affecting his life, the film almost starts to work- but then he returns home, and the laughs start coming thick and fast. The present day denouement is a particular offender, and one that makes the film worth watching (I’m not going to spoil it here, but it suggests that Josh Brolin is the blueprint for middle-American masculinity).
Labor Day is a bad film and one that seems entirely out of character from Reitman’s previous directorial efforts- but thankfully, its sheer stupidity means it’s as equally worth watching as his earlier, intentionally funnier ones.