My wife made this observation: There is, perhaps, a small comfort in knowing that you have perhaps already seen the worst film of the year as early as January. I’m having trouble expressing my deep hatred of Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, a trite, obvious, offensive, anti-feminist tirade that plays like an insufferable Nicholas Sparks romance, but without the protective sheen of treacly melodrama that – at the very least – gives the movie shape.
Labor Day is somehow simultaneously both a bland thudding mess of non-happenstance and an over-the-top soap opera fusillade of difficult-to-endure emotional cheap shots. Even though the movie contains a murder, a fetish-tinged kidnapping, sexual awakenings, divorce, a wheelchair-bound disabled child being deliberately slapped across the face, and no fewer than four dead babies (including one that we get to see on screen) it still feels like nothing happens in the film. The emotional stakes are somehow artificially heightened by the tackiest manipulations imaginable, and yet feel dead in the water by the film’s persistently downbeat tone and turgid pacing. By the end of the film, I can’t imagine any audience member feeling anything but anger and hatred by the boldly insufferable machinations of the morally reprehensible plot.
The movie is set in 1987, and Kate Winslet plays a divorcee named Adele, whose 12-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffin) has felt the need to “become the husband” in their lonesome living arrangement. Sadly, hints of incest are never realized; at least that would allow the film to saunter into enjoyably sleazy territory. Into Adele’s life comes a Handsome Rescue Stud (the insufferable male equivalent of the well-worn Manic Pixie Dreamgirl) in the form of Frank (Josh Brolin), a prison escapee, who essentially invades Adele’s home for shelter from the police. Frank proceeds to – as a form of payment for the illegal shelter – repair everything in sight. He also teaches Henry how to play ball and how to bake peach pies. He becomes the father figure Henry never had (his real father, Clark Gregg, is a bit too obsessed with his new family) as well as the conveniently sex-free husband figure that Adele requires. Adele is, I should perhaps add, a twitchy trauma sufferer whose hands shake, and who has been fostering a less-than-charming agoraphobia.
Oh, yes, and Frank has to tie her up so that Adele will not be accused of harboring a criminal. Adele is fetishistically tied to a chair (the camera lingers a little too long on the actual tying of the knots), and Frank proceeds to make a bowl of homemade gumbo from scratch, which he feeds to her. The sub/dom implications here are a little bit disgusting. In addition to this, young Henry seems to be coming of age, having some of his first sexual fantasies while Frank and Adele converse noisily in the next room. Were the film actually about its own kinks, this would be all be thematically acceptable. But this is ostensibly a romance-cum-coming of age drama. And, as a romantic ideal, Labor Day is insufferably corny horrifically offensive.
Remember, ladies: The best way to overcome any sort of emotional angst is to find the perfect man to fix you. And the perfect man is a man who does chores and is sensitive and is wholly devoted to you, but who is still willing to tie you up and keep you in place and show an implacable interest in you, even if you’re a twitchy emotional wreck. He will also be dangerous (in a sexy way) in that he’s a murderer. Oh, yes, and you may upset him because you won’t be able to immediately breed with him. Yes, Adele actually apologizes to Frank for being potentially barren. So you’re only worthwhile if you have a man in your life, and your only worth to a male will be that of a broodmare. Let’s hope this handsome stud, who plays baseball with your son and his disabled buddy, will forgive you.
What happened to Jason Reitman? He exploded onto the movie scene with lighthearted and wry comedies like Thank You for Smoking and Juno. His Up in the Air was a timely drama with at least some emotional resonance. But his last two films have been dour, cynical affairs that celebrate morally irresponsible characters, all without a hint of fun, irony, or actual relatable human behavior. Labor Day angered me. It may yet prove to be the worst film of the year. But the year is young.