There is no going around the fact that Labor Day is not a good movie. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) and his collaborators apparently failed to transform the flaws and deeply misguided core of the movie’s story, which present themselves in the last third of the movie, into something as aesthetically fascinating as some of the movie’s best passages. Now, you should take the word “best” with a grain of salt. I think it is virtually impossible for someone to see Labor Day and think it is a genuinely sincere and good movie, but I also think that there is a number of people who could grow to appreciate it deeply by reading it as an over-the-top exercise on the filmmakers part to try and make the most un-campy camp movie possible.
Most of the movie takes place over labor day weekend 1987. A boy named Henry (Gattlin Griffith) lives in a small town with his mother Adele (Kate Winslet). Adele has not been well ever since Henry’s dad (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary. Adele lives on a state of constant numbness, she doesn’t leave the house, and her hands shake constantly. It’s on labor day that Henry and Adele run into Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped con that wants to stay in their home to avoid the police. In a series of development that lie between The Bridges of Madison County and 50 Shades of Grey, Adele and Frank fall in love.
From those synopsis, you would guess why most critics have found the movie to be fairly ridiculous. And they wouldn’t be wrong. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is the most ridiculous and exaggerated aspects of the movie that end up being the most memorable. The trailer are selling the movie as an unconventional love fantasy, but the movie is really not as much about the romance between Adele and Frank, but a sick love triangle between the Henry, his mother and the escaped con. Don’t get me wrong, there is no explicit incest whatsoever, but let me just say that a better title than Labor Day would be Oedipus Complex: The Movie.
If you’ve heard anything about the movie, it’s probably the sexy pie-baking scene in which Winslet and Brolin’s characters start their love connection, what you might have not heard is that Henry is also present in that scene. That is when my reading of the movie starts to get complicated. There seems to be a very conscious decision on Reitman’s part to explicitly make this about Henry’s platonic relationship with his mother. He constantly has Adele and Frank in frames where we can still see Henry present in the background. All the girls that Henry seems to like or fantasize about look like his mother. There is a scene in which Henry can’t sleep because mom and Frank are having sex in the room next door. The way the movie ends would also suggest that Hery’s character journey is very much the one Sigmund Freud referred to as the oedipus complex.
Had the movie been a creepy thriller in which Henry is some sort of proto-Norman Bates, well then I probably would have liked it better. But I would also be certain of what Reitman’s vision was exactly when adapting this book. As much as the incestuous nature of the mother son relationship is present, it seems like the movie does believe itself to be first and foremost a romance. A fantasy in which the manly equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl takes the form of Josh Brolin and comes to swept the neglected housewife off of her feet. There isn’t that much inherently wrong to this approach, but it feels incredibly misdirected when it is juxtaposed with the creepy mother-son affinity. It is even worse when the fantasy male is an ex-con, whose violent past is easily sidelined and not at all explored in a conflicting way. Is this something that would inspire female fantasies? I find it rather misogynistic and insensitive, but then again, I don’t know if I’m the ideal person to put forward that kind of judgment. Just know that I don’t approve of the movie’s idealization of Frank. That is unless there’s an even bigger picture that Reitman is trying to play at here. Is he doing some kind of meta commentary on semi-erotic adult female fantasies? I don’t think so, but even if he isn’t, can someone get such a reading out of this, and is it a valid one?
There is a movie within Labor Day that embraces the ridiculous aspects of its premise, that isn’t afraid to renounce to the idea that it has to be a serious and prestigious movie, have an idiosyncratic point of view, and accepting the more icky and uncomfortable places the story could go in order to be a truly unique piece of cinema. There are glimpses of that movie throughout Labor Day, but that is a movie that does not exist. The movie Jason Reitman made is a very dull one. In any case, let me just say one more thing about the movie. I would probably never want to watch Labor Day again, but I would read a hundred essays about it.