Director: Jason Reitman
Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith
Running time: 111 minutes
The first bad sign: As everyone filed into the theater, little packets of tissues were distributed. There was no direction given as to whether the tissues were for crying or masturbating. Which is weird because Labor Day, the new movie from Juno director Jason Reitman is definitely somebody’s pornographic fantasy. It’s also a movie that begs for your tears. In other words, it’s a messy experience. Also, hilarious. Just not, you know, intentionally so.
The straight, beleaguered faces of stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, the somber musical accompaniment to earnestly narrated scenes of American struggle in the late 1980s—these are the other bad signs. Jason Reitman solidified his rep with sharp-toothed comedies like Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air. But now...this. Melodrama in these United States, writ large. He's got his big boy pants on now.
The year is 1987 and 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) takes care of his literally shaking mother, Adele Wheeler (Winslet). She is sad all of the time, can barely leave her home without going into a catatonic tunnel of despair. She’s got frightened eyes and hands like vibrators. (That kind of tool is something she could use, according to the movie and its characters; Henry gives her “husband for a day” cards redeemable for back rubs and drawn baths, but not humping. Adult Henry, the narrator, explains how he couldn’t quite put his finger on her unquenched sexual desire as a teen, but could feel it all the same. He doesn’t know the name of the D, just senses that she needs the D, truly, madly, deeply. Thankfully, the D is coming.) (Sorry.)
The D arrives over Labor Day weekend in the form of Frank Chambers (Brolin), a wounded escaped convict. He muscles Adele and Henry into taking him home with them during their regular trip to the store for clothes that won’t fit Henry. (His mom is not being a great mom, the movie won’t let you forget.) There’s some of Reitman’s trademark keen dialogue in these early interactions, but once the ground beef comes out, things get super soggy, super fast. See, Frank is actually a caring, good man, and wants to feed his new hostages. The kitchen positively sings as he goes to work making a big pot of chili for Adele and Henry. It’s supposed to be very hot; Frank blows on a spoonful of chili before bringing it to Adele’s mouth. Here comes the airplane. Only it’s a sexy airplane carrying luggage filled with smoldering love. Or something.
Because we, the audience, cannot be trusted to connect any dots, the feeding is juxtaposed with a flashback in which Adele explains sexual pleasure to Henry, how people crave human touch. Get it now? She wants that spoonful of chili because she wants Frank. This is one of Labor Day’s biggest offenses (also the source of its cringing laughs), that it thinks so little of the viewers its only recourse is to pummel them with hyperbole. You wanna know why Adele is sad? Well, how about her one, two, three miscarriages? You sad yet, motherfucker? No? Well, guess what—she also gave birth to a stillborn baby. Take that. Are you feeling these feelings yet?
And maybe chili food porn isn't enough, either. Dig this: Frank is a gifted baker, too. And when some very ripe peaches—warning: genital symbolism approaching—appear at the house, he bakes a pie. He narrates cooking instructions that sound like Paula Deen erotic fan-fic while mixing sloppy, wet peaches with Adele and Henry’s help. Three pairs of hands, one bowl. (There’s a definite R. Crumb, “the family that lays together stays together” vibe here). “Don’t overhandle the dough,” he cautions Adele like he’s coaching a junior high school handjob.
By now, audiences will have realized that Frank isn’t a three-dimensional character, he’s actually one of those “porn for women” calendars, the kind where hot guys do housework. Frank washes the floor, waxes the floor, fixes the car, irons the laundry, cleans the gutters. He isn’t a human being, he’s an angel blessed with infinite patience, compassion, knowledge of household appliances and substitutes for concrete, a strong jaw, and a dick that administers g-spot orgasms without even needing to be hard. Probably. (The most explicit sex the movie offers is the pie scene; but Henry does overhear Frank and Adele humping eventually. Presumably it is the best sex of her life and makes her feel like a complete human being who will never again know sadness or pain.)
There’s so much more absurd shit this movie pulls, like the time Frank teaches a mentally handicapped and wheelchair-bound child to appreciate baseball, America’s pastime. (Really, this happens.) And that’s not even getting into the circumstances that landed Frank in prison. His wife, a woman who slept all around town, accidentally drowned their baby in the bathtub, and so Frank accidentally manslaughtered her. From the movie’s perspective, it’s his only blemish, and a minor one at that. Because, um, did you even taste his scones?
It goes without saying that this movie is deeply sexist, but it’s worth saying anyway: This movie is deeply sexist. Consider it: Labor Day is a fantasy where a woman’s body constantly betrays her (unless she’s with a strong man), and a strong man can be the ideal partner, free of personal desire, a near-perfect caregiver and provider (plus he’s good at sports!). His only imperfection is that he killed a whore. NBD. Now, ask yourself: who’s fantasy is this?
You laugh to keep from crying.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)