Sometimes, as a writer, you don’t need to do anything more than embrace the genre in which you are working. This should have been a simple romance story about a guy barging into a woman’s life and then her falling for him. Instead, we get a slightly creepy, overanalyzed, extremely earnest take on Stockholm Syndrome.
“Labor Day” centers on 13-year-old Henry Wheeler, who struggles to be the man of his house and care for his reclusive mother Adele while confronting all the pangs of adolescence. On a back-to-school shopping trip, Henry and his mother encounter Frank Chambers, a man both intimidating and clearly in need of help, who convinces them to take him into their home and later is revealed to be an escaped convict. The events of this long Labor Day weekend will shape them for the rest of their lives. (Synopsis by Paramount)
This entire film basically follows the plot summary of the book. There isn’t a whole lot to work with given the mostly straight-line narrative. However, that doesn’t give the script leeway to continuously churn out over-wrought, really SERIOUS musings on love for the characters to say. Even as chick-lit, snuggle-with-your-boyfriend, bottle-of-wine material, the things that come out of the characters’ mouths concerning love is ridiculous at a gag-inducing level. Most of the film feels like a Lifetime Original thriller than the romance it is supposed to be.
A liberal amount of disbelief in the plot is the best way to get through this. Opening with Frank accosting Henry in the store, Frank then holds Adele and Henry hostage until love blossoms—it’s a bit of a stretch. Try to ignore the fact that Frank comes off as if his romantic interests are focused more on Henry than Adele during the early part of the film. Once you get past those creepy interactions and into the meat of the story, you have to accept either that Stockholm Syndrome is fully in play, or that these two people are true soul mates that stumble upon each other. Both ideas have serious flaws, but we’ll try not to put too much thought into the simplistic premise. It really doesn’t matter how you rationalize the plot, since so much of the rest of the film is just as irrational.
This all boils down to the simple idea that sex ruins everything. There are some humorous asides with Henry as he tries to understand his blooming manhood in the context of captivity and his mother’s romantic interest in Frank. As if the over-wrought dialogue on love wasn’t enough, there are enough fuzzy-filtered, intimate shots of Frank and Adele to make you wonder if Terrence Malick was the cinematographer. Here is Frank tying her to a chair. Slowly and tenderly. Here is Frank teaching them how to make a peach pie. Slowly and tenderly. I’ll let you make your own jokes and metaphors for two grown adults going elbow-deep in a peach pie. Each of these intimate vignettes set up Frank as a secret gentleman who is the victim of bad events. Eventually, in more fuzzy-filmed scenes, we flesh out Adele and Frank’s back stories. By then you are so divested of the characters and whatever weird bondage-captive role play they are working through that it makes little difference how they got to that point.
The real sin here is that this much talent is sooooo invested in trying to make this story work. It screams “Oscar bait” to a distracting degree. Whether it is the “art house” shots or the overbaked writing, this is a film in love with the idea of winning an award. It doesn’t need to be nearly this complicated. A simple story requires a simple film. If you want to make art, then don’t pick a plot pulled from a grocery store romance novel. This kind of dreck is going to be a failure unless you embrace it for what it is. Make the film that girls want to fantasize about, not something they have to digest.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Skip it. Read the book. It has to be better than this mess.
ONE AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence, and sexuality.
Runtime: 1 hr. 51 mins.