Prison Super Dad Saves The Day
“Mom, stop crying.”
Those were the first words I heard when the credits rolled on Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, coming from a 10 or 11-year-old boy sitting behind me with his mom. They seemed especially relevant to include here, as Labor Day is the ultimate “mom, stop crying” movie.
With Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Young Adult, and especially Up in the Air, his best film to date, Jason Reitman has established himself as a filmmaker people pay attention to come awards season. Which is why it was odd to see his latest, starring perennial awards candidates Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, dumped into late January, on the weekend after I,Frankenstein, with no marketing campaign to speak of. The folks at Paramount clearly didn’t much like this movie. But that doesn’t mean you won’t! Come to think of it, are you a mom?
Labor Day was adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, but everything about it fits the idea that Jason Reitman was trying to make a Nicholas Sparks movie, to sort of play around with the form, and understand its appeal – a hot dude, a steamy romance, gorgeous sun-drenched scenery, a tragic event, and a last shot at love and redemption for two once-broken hotties. No one ever saves a nest of sea turtles from a raccoon, but for a big chunk of this movie, I thought Reitman was actually going to do the impossible, and make a good Nick Sparks movie, simply through chemistry and tension-building alone. Think Van Gogh painting a Thomas Kinkade landscape.
Labor Day is narrated by Tobey Maguire, king of the gee whiz voiceover, the grown-up version of Labor Day‘s protagonist, a mop-headed kid named Hank on the cusp of adolescence, living with his depressed, agoraphobic mom (Kate Winslet) in a country cottage in small-town New England. Whereas the Nicholas Sparks version of this story would surely have made Winslet’s ex a monstrous, wife-abandoning abuser who kicks puppies and hates the USA, in Labor Day, he’s Clark Gregg, a regular guy who loves his son, but who just didn’t have it in him to live with a depressed lady. As Tobey’s voiceover helpfully tells us, “I think my mom was more upset about losing love than about losing my father.”
Clark Gregg offers to let Hank move in with him and his new family, but the kid knows his fragile mom will go to pieces without him, so he’s basically become her emotional prisoner. That’s when escaped prisoner-prisoner Josh Brolin shows up to make chili and teach Hank to play baseball. On the run from the prison hospital, he kidnaps Mom and son, more by strength of will than by threats or weaponry, and it isn’t long before they decide that they sort of like having him around, murderer or not. He starts cleaning gutters, changing the oil, and making delicious prison biscuits for breakfast, and speaking of gutters, we could have used them in the theater aisles for how the women seemed to be reacting to burly Brolin the prison house-work superman (his short T-Rex arms notwithstanding). Who knew the way to a woman’s heart was to clean her house? Okay, that makes a lot of sense, actually. The sexual tension comes to a gooey crescendo when Prison Biscuits Brolin teaches Lady Nightgown to make peach pie in the most sensual way possible. Peach pie scene in Labor Day > pottery scene in Ghost any day.
Meanwhile, Reitman is taking such pains to communicate Hank’s sexual coming of age that you just know it’s going to tragically ruin his mom’s pie and lovemaking holiday somehow. The poor bastard, as if he doesn’t already have enough pubescent guilt about sex. Reitman actually sets up this part of the story beautifully, making it a competent exercise in tension, despite the inherent spoileriness of the title. He gets great acting work out of his young love interest, played by Brighid Fleming, and his protagonist, Gattlin Griffith, who has a knack for communicating a lot with a tiny smirk in addition to an awesome name.
Just when I was thinking that Reitman had succeeded in making mom porn thoroughly watchable, he collapsed the souffle with an ending so hokey it would make Nicholas Sparks himself blush. I don’t want to spoil it (scroll all the way down for that), but suffice to say, it rivaled the 500 Days of Summer guy meeting a new chick named “Autumn” for on-the-nose schmaltz. The other problem with the film is that it paints Kate Winslet’s character as a woman who can’t get out of her own way without prison super dad there spooning her chili and telling her to believe in herself. I don’t know where screenwriters got this idea that anyone was interested in watching sad-sack characters battle mental illness, but it’s one of my least favorite things ever. There’s even a teary revelation scene where we’re supposed to sympathize with poor Kate Winslet’s overwhelming melancholy on account of she was only able to have one child. Really? We’re supposed to believe you tailspun into crushing depression on account of only having one, loving, obedient child? Please. A billion Chinese people are all making you very small violins in a Foxconn factory somewhere.
In the end, I respect what Jason Reitman was trying to do with Labor Day – he made me believe that doing a good Nicholas Sparks movie was a worthwhile endeavor, an incredible feat in itself. He damn near pulled it off too. But as my pa used to say before he got taken back to prison, almost only counts in horseshoes in hand grenades, not in pie-baking or love-making. I think he might’ve been schizophrenic.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
SPOILER ENDING: Biscuits Brolin gets taken back to prison, but wouldn’t you know it, he and Kate Winslet have been chastely waiting for each other the whole time. And grown up Tobey Maguire? He’s a famous pie shop owner now, complete with his smiling dorky face framed in a “local boy makes good” magazine article. Seriously, that’s how it ended. It was a B+ movie up until that point.