by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… if an ill-advised romance between a lonely-yet-perfect single mother (who has been wronged) and an equally perfect escaped convict (who has also been wronged) sound just like your cup of tea.
Avoid it… if you prefer your romances to be populated with characters rather than vague ideals.
Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is “in love with love.” We’re told several times during the duration of Labor Day. It’s an accurate assessment, though I’m not certain I’d call it a compliment. She seems so in love with the idea of being in love that she’s unable to look beyond it. So, when a charismatic escaped convict Frank Chambers, (Josh Brolin) uses a combination of persuasion and implied threats against her son to convince her to give him sanctuary at her house, it’s not long before she’s smitten. Fortunately for her (or unfortunately, depending on the viewer), the convict seems just as in love with love as she is.
If you’ve gone to many movies, you’ve no doubt seen a few films like this already, so you know what I’m talking about – the star-struck romance that was just too perfect to last. The blueprint goes all the way back to Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet, and has in recent times been milked to the bone by authors like Nicholas Sparks, whose own novels have had more than a few movie adaptations. Some might harp at me for giving away the ending, but at this point such references can hardly be spoiler material – if one can give away the ending of a film by merely stating what genre it belongs to, then the ending is meant to be assumed.
Winslet’s character has the usual, obligatory dose of tragic backstory – after a failed marriage, she has been completely unable to rebuild her life. She spends most of her days at home, leaving only once a month to pick up groceries. Her son Henry, who is just about to start seventh grade, seems in many ways to be more of an adult than she is, and he spends much of his time and energy looking out for her. Not that he minds, of course – it seems almost contractual that no character in Labor Day mind anything.
For a movie about a fugitive, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on cooking, cleaning, and a token set of rather generic pastimes. At one point, a girl at the store asks Henry if there is anything to do around town. He looks puzzled for a moment before responding with bowling. Anything more intense might have sent the protagonists into shock – not only are they boring people, they seem to make a habit of finding the most boring and generic pastimes possible to engage in. By about the hour mark I felt as though I would have given anything for a single interesting conversation.
Of course, this might have been helped if the pacing was less morose, but the scene after scene in Labor Day plods on slowly and predictably as though the entire film was dragged through a vat of molasses in post-production. Rarely is there any sort of excitement, and when there is, even it is morose. This is damning in the case of some of the films more intense scenes, as they linger on for so long that the tension often dissipates long before the scene is through.
To their credit, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin manage admirably with the meager material they’re given. Winslet infuses her Adele with a tense vulnerability; she seems so uncertain and wound up that one might expect her to spring suddenly like a jack-in-the-box at any moment. Brolin bestows the convict Frank with a forceful charisma such that the film’s many improbably scenes and close calls manage to convince largely because of the assuredness with which he plays them. Both performances are credits to their actors, and it’s a shame to see them spent on such simplistic material.
I would have liked to have seen the more ambiguous aspects of the story explored more fully. Frank has been convicted of murder and in a few scenes he seems quite dangerous. However, so much of the rest of the film focuses on portraying him as the (stereotypically) perfect husband and father that any sense of criminal nature in him is never fully explored. Adele clearly suffers from some sort of anxiety disorder by the time the film starts, but rather than becoming more interesting as the film goes on, her psychological troubles end up being either explained away through backstory or dismissed in a manner that’s uncomfortably too close to the “she’s too good for this hard earth” stereotype. The film focuses on Frank and Adele learning to live life through and for each other. I wonder if a more romantic (and interesting) story might have involved them learning to live for and value themselves, and through that enhance their appreciation for each other in their mutual journey.
But I suppose that having either of them develop into coherent and distinct characters would miss the point. Frank and Adele are ideals, and their lives are romantic escapist fantasies. They have been wronged and of course any wrong they do is accidental or unintended, and therefore (at least according to the film) instantly forgivable. They don’t need to grow or change, because they’re treated as perfect as they are. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found perfection to be as boring as it is unlikely. I’ll take a flawed, unique character any day – the type that Humphrey Bogart (of Casablanca fame) made a career playing. Now, Casablanca was a movie with some interesting characters, with flaws, quirks, and inner turmoil that was both distinct and universal. Labor Day, by comparison, is just a wisp of cloud upon the wind – it might be pretty for a moment, but it’s pretty bland and monochrome, and fades from memory almost as quickly as it forms.