Labor pains: Screen adaptation of bestseller lost in translation

by Mark Burger

Despite lofty intentions, literary pedigree and collective talent, Labor Day is a labored, maudlin adaption of Joyce Maynard’s novel — an unusual and unsuccessfulchange of pace for filmmaker Jason Reitman, twice an Academy Award nominee for Best Director (Up in the Air and Juno).

This tale of loss and longing is conveyed in the solemn narration of Henry (Tobey Maguire, briefly seen but frequently heard) as he recalls the events of 1987 when, as a teen (Gattlin Griffith), he and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) spent Labor Day weekend in the company of escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin).

Adele and Henry are as emotionally wounded by Adele’s divorce from Henry’s father Gerald (Clark Gregg), as Frank is himself physically and emotionally wounded. Although Frank is essentially holding them hostage in their own home, a strange and unconvincing kinship develops between them.

In short order, Frank becomes a surrogate father and husband, doing repairs, playing catch with Henry, baking pies, and learning how to rumba with Adele. It’s nice having a man around the house — even if he is an escaped fugitive, convicted of killing his wife.

By the time Adele and Frank have improbably decided to flee to Canada with Henry, the story has stretched credibility beyond the breaking point. Even on soap-opera terms, the film simply and stubbornly refuses to work. There’s no heat in the Adele/Frank romance, no suspense whether Frank will be re-captured, and no end to the heavy-handedness of these proceedings.

The cast, which also includes Brooke Smith, JK Simmons and James Van Der Beek as passersby, is constrained by Reitman’s pretentious treatment — no more so than in Maguire’s ponderous narration, or the endless stream of long, “meaningful” glances among the characters. Reitman and the actors have all proven themselves in their previous work, but Labor Day is a misfire on all counts. It tries very hard and achieves precious little.