Movie Review
Labor Day
Labor Day poster
By Lee Tistaert     Published January 23, 2014
US Release: December 27, 2013

Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Tobey Maguire , Kate Winslet , James Van Der Beek , Josh Brolin

PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
Running Time: 111 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $13,110,000
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Labor Day is strange in its ability to be about almost nothing while still managing to be an almost-engaging picture.
Labor Day is a strange film. And this is coming from somebody who liked Spike Jonzeís film, Her, which is one of the strangest films in recent memory. Labor Day is strange in its ability to be about almost nothing in a nutshell while still managing to be an almost-engaging picture. I thought I was in for a pleasant surprise with this one during its visceral opening montage, but as the film played out, I was struggling for words as to why one should recommend seeing it. First I really liked Jason Reitmanís direction, establishing a very small quiet town with various shots perfectly establishing a certain mood. Then the story had to play out, or sort of, because thereís not much of a story, but there has to be one. The acting within that story was very good immediately and this reinforced how talented Reitman is. But then I took a step back from the acting and the tone and I kept asking myself what this film was about.

Kate Winslet plays a severely depressed single mom with one kid in a small town where everybody knows everybody. She has a quiet kid whoís of few words, and apparently the older version of him is narrating. Before we know it, Josh Brolin comes into the picture and we find out he just escaped from a hospital. He approaches the two in a convenient store in this town and begs them to drive him to their house. First theyíre too nervous and then he insists upon it and so the two take him home for refuge. Then we find out that he is a fugitive on the run from murder and the two end up being hostages of his. But that doesnít last long because Winslet and Brolin end up clicking and get closer and closer together. Then thereís the police chase after him and his photo is on the news and everybody knows about him. Besides that, not much happens, but the film is nearly two hours long so that must mean things happen.

Not really. Most of the story involves the dynamics between these three as the fugitive settles in there. The acting is very good. I have to stress this because I was constantly engaged with all the performances. But emotionally, I just wasnít there, which was strange because these performances were really good. Winslet can do almost anything when it comes to acting in films and she rises above nothing-writing. The same goes for Brolin, who youíre not supposed to like but his acting makes him rather compelling. The kid is also good for having not much to do here, and the narration by Tobey Maguire is also good. And I still heavily admired Reitman for his directing tone throughout because I was fascinated by it. But in order for a film to fully work, the story has to be there and needs to be compelling, and this was not. I kept admiring many things about this film but the story was bothering me so much I was speechless.

Surely this had to turn into something, perhaps profound, and yet it never really turned into anything. Everything about this film was working and working well except for a story that wasnít there. How can everything be so solid in a film except for the story? The story is what everything runs on. Did these actors just love Reitman so much from his previous films that they agreed to do anything for him? These are smart actors so I have to guess they read the script first and this is why they agreed to do it. This is not a paycheck movie and this is clear right from the beginning which means itís all about passion. Reitman didnít just call them up and ask if they wanted to be in a movie Ė this isnít your routine movie. These actors start with the script first, analyze it intimately, and then decide if they respond to the story. Thatís different from various other movies where the paycheck can be first without even reading the script. Did they just want to work with Reitman on anything they could or did they claim something was actually here? Reitman is fantastic with his actors and his actors are making it look like thereís an actual premise here.

The film reminded me of an earlier 2013 release called Mud which starred Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive on the run in a small town who runs into two pre-teens who agree to hide him away in a forest. I thought Mud was really boring and it was way too minimalist of an independent film for me to like. There wasnít much directing to admire and the performances werenít really impressing me much. That story also wasnít about much. It didnít amount to much in the end. I didnít care about the characters. I didnít care about the characters in Labor Day either, which also doesnít amount to much but is better. Labor Day was like watching Mud all over again except with much better directing and better acting. These actors had transformed into their roles and there was a constant tone with the music and style. But take away the acting, the music, and the general tone, Labor Day wasnít about anything either. When the film ended, I had no emotional response and was confused as to what I had just watched. And yet, I was never bored, and there were quite a few movies during 2013 that left me staring at the clock. Thatís kind of a strange reaction to have about a film and that means thereís something weird going on.

Labor Day isnít going to be making much money, I know that much. It was advertised as a rather odd film, coming from somebody who had made money at the box office previously. A film like this just isnít going to pack it in or even make a decent sum of money; itís not that kind of story. Sometimes different can sell, but there needs to be more than a handful of people curious about it, and the handful of people who initially take a chance arenít going to be spreading the word. There is no chance of mainstream success and the art-house success is even going to be limited. There was nobody at my screening and it was the first week and Reitman had crowds previously. And this was at a top-tier art-house where intellectuals would love to catch Winslet/Brolin. That means thereís no appeal for this story even amongst the thinking-crowds for a deeply personal film. Revolutionary Road played really well at this location and that was a similarly deeply personal film. That film had a story to follow, along with performances and a director with talent. That film wasnít a success in the mainstream market either and only played well at the top art-houses. Labor Day is only playing at the top art-houses and thereís no chance of even getting to that level of just okay business. Itís going to be Reitmanís lowest grossing film at the box office which would hint at a pretty bad movie. Itís not a pretty bad movie and itís actually good, except for the story, which has clearly killed its potential. There was a good story to create here, Iím sure of it, because the film almost had me. Iíd call it a disappointment but I had low expectations going in and it surprised me and then confused me. Thatís better than having expectations and then being disappointed by what unfolds. I liked a lot on display here. But it had one major problem.
Lee's Grade: C+
Ranked #30 of 119 between The Way, Way Back (#29) and In a World... (#31) for 2013 movies.
Lee's Overall Grading: 3025 graded movies
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'Labor Day' Articles
  • Craig's review C
    February 23, 2014    Contrived, draggy, and always a sillier situation than it is a romantic one. -- Craig Younkin