In Defence Of ‘Labor Day’, And The Unironic Glory Of The Mum Romance
You know who’ll eat up Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet’s sexy, sexy peach pie? Your mum! (And maybe you, too.)
You know who’ll eat up Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet’s sexy, sexy peach pie? Your mum! And maybe you, too.
Jason Reitman’s Labor Day has proven the maxim that studios rarely expect a good reception from their January and early February releases. Currently this nostalgia-flushed crime romance has a Tomatometer rating of 32%, and a more generous Metacritic rating of 51.
Critics have singled out for particular ridicule a scene in which convicted murderer-on-the-lam Frank (Josh Brolin) teaches depressive divorcée Adele (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), in whose house he’s hiding, to make peach pie. This scene is every bit as LOLsome as everyone says. Stuffed with enough sensual kneading and homespun double entendres (“let’s talk crust!”) to put Nigella Lawson to shame, it trawls the same waters as that famous pottery scene from Ghost.
Part of me wanted this film to be self–consciously absurd; I imagined Brolin and Winslet LOLing themselves silly in-between takes. To take that view assumes melodrama can only ever be deliberately satirical, cynically schmaltzy or ham-fistedly camp… never the heartfelt product of an auteur.
Especially not the director of such sardonic, quirky fare as Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult. How could such a mordant observer of human nature have produced something so determinedly gooey?
But this is Reitman’s passion project. He’s been nuts for Joyce Maynard’s novel since 2009. “I found myself overwhelmed and moved. I cried, even, which isn’t normal for me,” he said, adding that “parts of the book beat the (crap) out of me. They just levelled me.”
Your Mum’s Romance
Labor Day is a coming-of-age tale ostensibly told in flashback as the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) remembers that torrid Labor Day weekend of 1987. This makes sense if you imagine him as a kind of pie-baking Nick Carraway. Like Nick, Henry is a nostalgic observer of doomed love.
Movies often follow a young person’s sexual awakening alongside the romantic travails of surrounding adults. Here, Henry is a go-between, caught between Adele and Frank’s fantasy domestic idyll and an outside world that just doesn’t understand. Especially not Henry’s dad (Clark Gregg), who left Adele for his secretary and now smugly pathologises her as being “in love with love”.
This is Mum Romance. The female protagonists of films including The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, Random Hearts and Nights in Rodanthe are not like the callow teenage lovers in the Nicholas Sparks coming-of-age weepies (The Notebook, Dear John, The Last Song, The Lucky One) that have dominated recent romantic dramas; nor are they like the supernatural soulmates of young adult movies.
Middle-aged, jaded, with physically or emotionally absent partners, these characters’ passion and sensitivity are sublimated into their maternal role… until they rediscover their erotic selves in an affair with a manly, taciturn yet tender stranger.
The scenes in which Frank first invades Henry and Adele’s home are striking for their taut, almost palpably menacing tone. There’s something modishly kinky about the way he ties Adele to a chair, feeding her spoonfuls of the chili con carne he’s effortlessly whipped up, and pinions her out of sight of their peach-gifting neighbour (no pie for JK Simmons).
Having fled a prison hospital after having his appendix out, Frank has torn clothes for Adele to sew, and a wound to which she can tend… but his true allure lies in the way he blends domestic capability with piquant hints of a dangerous, tragic past. Labor Day’s pie scene seems to open the floodgates for the fantasy-fulfilment tropes of Mum Romance to be trowelled on in glorious abundance.
While the local manhunt for Frank continues, led by an ominously vigilant cop (James van der Beek), the crim himself fixes Adele’s dilapidated house, does her laundry, sweeps her floor and teaches her son the manly arts of playing baseball and changing car tyres! They have an all-American barbecue! They dance the rumba! When a harassed neighbour dumps her disabled son with Adele, Frank tenderly dabs a cold flannel to the kid’s forehead!
Truly, it does not get any more Cottontails-moistening than this.
Be Playful With Your Feels
It’s easy to get defensive about the emotional responses film can inspire in us. We can find ourselves humourlessly insisting a film was brilliant just because it gave us feels, ignoring its other flaws. We can feel embarrassed at having allowed a calculatedly emotive film to exert its intended effect on us.
And we can find it hard to admit when there’s nothing really wrong with a film other than the fact it sought to move us but didn’t. Instead, despising it, we’ll tear down its craft – declare it ‘a bad film’ with terrible plot and dialogue, lame and unconvincing performances, stodgy direction, and so on.
But what about Labor Day? It looks beautiful, gilded in shimmery summer light. Winslet and Brolin give heartfelt performances. Reitman’s camera glides languorously, capturing mood and gesture rather than dialogue and action. And the flashback sequences, starring a perfectly cast Tom Lipinski as the young Frank, are integrated in a dreamlike, fragmentary way, the same way our memories rise to the surface.
Many people adored last year’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, another romantic tale of an escaped convict’s doomed love, shot impressionistically in a summery rural America. But in its way, it’s just as silly and melodramatic as Labor Day. I wonder if it got a critical pass because its protagonists are young, and hence their desires are more culturally palatable.
Enjoying Labor Day requires being playful with your feels. It dares you to find its earnestness ridiculous, while beguiling you with its innocent artistic conviction – the sort that marks true cult films. I can laugh at that pie scene, at the bathos of a 13-year-old making his mother ‘Husband for a Day’ coupons, or at Josh Brolin’s ageing makeup, which makes him resemble Kris Kristofferson.
Yet I can also appreciate that this Mum Romance panders to its audience’s desires without cynicism or guile. The fantasy it presents is easy to mock, but delicious all the same.
Labor Day is out now. Take your mum.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.