Established May 2010.

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Film Critic for Twin Cities Live

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie Review: LABOR DAY

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tom Lipinski, James Van der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith

I don’t know if I have ever really expressed my love of Kate Winslet. She is simply one of the greatest actresses working today. I have been known on multiple occasions to go back and rewatch her Best Actress Oscar speech for The Reader. When the trailer for Labor Day was released, I was excited for a new Winslet movie but was perplexed and cautious at the same time. It seemed like an unusual premise that I could not quite wrap by brain around. I trusted it could be good with Winslet in it. Even though it was in limited release in time for Oscar consideration, the wide release was pushed to late January which can never be a good sign.

Adele (Winslet) is now living as a single mother to her son, Henry (Griffith). They have a pretty close relationship that some may find a bit too close. He is going through puberty and feels the pressure to grow up faster than he should in order to take care of her. Adele is in a fragile, damaged place after her husband/Henry’s father (Gregg) left them for his secretary. The local townies feel the need to step on eggshells around her and always ask how she’s doing.

While out shopping, Henry is approached by Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding. He quietly takes them hostage and forces them to take him back to their place. Frank is a known criminal as he escaped prison while at the hospital for appendicitis. He has been serving time for murdering his wife. Back at their place Frank acts calm and non-violent. He doesn’t want to cause them any danger as he contemplates his next move. He acts like a gentleman by fixing their car, doing home repairs, and teaches them how to bake. Adele and Henry must save face anytime a neighbor stops by or when the cops patrol the neighborhood. The atmosphere in the house changes as a vulnerable Adele starts to fall for Frank and sexual tension is added into the mix.

The film plays out as part mystery and part romance. This idea of the hostage feeling compassion, empathy, and romantic feelings toward their captor is known as Stockholm syndrome. It is a perplexing situation that is hard to understand, which makes this story a bit of a conundrum. It seems odd to imagine having romantic feelings toward the same person that kidnapped you and is putting your life in danger. Even though he doesn’t necessarily do anything to harm them, you just never know if he may snap at any moment. Winslet is such a strong talented actress that is so good at playing the dimensions, I spent the majority of the film wondering if she was just submitting herself to him just to gain his trust so she could then pull the upper hand and attack him. Unfortunately, Adele is a bit too damaged and vulnerable to be playing those mind games of thinking ahead of her attacker. I was reading more into the character knowing it was Winslet playing her than I probably would have if it was someone else. I have a hard time understanding this idea of Stockholm syndrome, so I could never buy into the romance. I found the chores and repair work he does very odd. The pie making scene to bring the family together was slightly bizarre even though it did provide some good tips on how to make a big peach pie. I will say that the pie did look pretty delicious.

Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Young Adult, Juno) adapted the screenplay from the novel by Joyce Maynard. He seems to be more successful with the mystery portions of the story. There is suspense and a buildup of tension that really works well whenever the neighbors (Simmons, Smith) stop over to check on Adele or whenever the police start questioning her and Henry. You wonder if at any moment one or both of them might crack and let on that they have been kidnapped. You hope the police read into their nervous energy. The musical score has that slight build and drive keeping the suspense alive in these scenes. It makes the environment more believable and palpable that help is near and ready if they are willing to use it. The story would be way less successful and tolerable if it was just a pure romance story without any underlining hope for them to get out of it. The real question comes into play with Adele and if she wants out of it. There are flashback scenes of a young Frank (Lipinski) that lead up to the incident with his wife. I have not read the novel, but I am assuming that those scenes are part of Maynard's novel. I understand why they are a part of the story, but I question the structure of how it is used in the screenplay. Thank God Lipinski looks just like a young Brolin or I would have been completely lost. It always seems so out of place when the film cuts to these flashback moments. I do not want to give away as to why they are included, but it may have served better if approached and handled differently.

Reitman's latest has been receiving fairly negative reviews compared to his previous films. I do not believe it is anywhere near as bad as certain critics want you to believe. Winslet is a powerhouse actress that is perfect for this type of character. Brolin frequently plays these types of untrustworthy, damaged characters. If it wasn't for those two breathing life and dimension into these characters, I would have given up early on. Gattlin Griffith stands out as a sharp young actor who seems to be the smartest of these main characters. Tobey Maguire provides narration throughout as the adult Henry looking back at his childhood and how this one weekend forever changed his and his mother's lives. He only appears on screen during the very ending. That coda adds to the frustration of the film as a whole. With such a perplexing topic at hand that is hard to grasp, Reitman could done a better job at the balance and structure of how this Labor Day weekend of events unfolds. If you can give over to the romantic nature of the film early on, you may be able to enjoy it better. If you try to make sense of it all, you might be scratching your head at times.

Is it worth your trip to the movies? Yes, but I would wait and watch it at home.

RATING: *** (3 out of 5 stars)

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