There are worse ways to make a living, but I worry sometimes that going to see hundreds of movies a year might breed an odd complacency. Sturgeon’s law dictates that “90 percent of everything is crap,” and so perhaps as a coping mechanism to preserve whatever tiny shreds of sanity remain within my rattling hamster wheel of a brain, the majority of these pictures are almost immediately forgotten. Now entering my 15th year upon this beat, I fear I may have developed an internal, self-protecting bilge pump that flushes most lousy movies from my consciousness before I even have a chance to get too upset about them. Have I desensitized myself to garbage?
So a movie like Labor Day is cause for celebration. Adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel and directed by 36-year-old Jason Reitman with a solemnity so inflated it defies all logic, common sense and presumably several of God’s holy commandments, this is a spectacularly awful film. Breathtaking to behold as it barrels from one terrible artistic decision to another, Labor Day is so histrionically abysmal that it makes you realize how lazy and complacent most other movies are in their banal mediocrity. Labor Day’s atrociousness is thrilling. I felt alive again as I left the theater.
Behold the heartbreaking tale of pubescent Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), who spends the summer of 1987 riding his bike through a New Hampshire neighborhood, forlorn and missing his dad (Clark Gregg), who not-so-recently took off and started another, happier family. Meanwhile, Henry’s still stuck in a ramshackle, falling-apart house with his sad-sack mother Adele (Kate Winslet). Prone to increasingly intense anxiety attacks ever since her husband left, she’s a depressive, agoraphobic drag who can’t even hold it together long enough for a trip to the local department store.
But that’s where the magic happens. Convicted murderer Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who just jumped out the window of a nearby prison infirmary and is bleeding from the gut after an appendix operation, has been hanging out in the boys’ clothes section, just waiting for a family with a hot mom who looks like Kate Winslet he can hold hostage for the holiday weekend.
Frank’s the gentlest, courtliest escaped killer you’ve ever seen in a movie. The Wheelers are his terrified captives, but just as soon as he arrives, Frank sets about devoting himself to household repairs. That very afternoon, stomach wound and all, he fixes the stone work in their crumbling basement, cleans the gutters, changes the oil in the family station wagon and teaches Henry how to throw a knuckleball—all within the space of a single misguided musical montage.
It gets better. As Winslet’s generous décolletage trembles in the foreground, Brolin takes a large bite of a peach from an overflowing bowl on the kitchen counter, worrying aloud that her fruit is ripe and will probably go to waste. (I’m kind of dumb, but I think what he’s saying there was probably supposed to be a metaphor.) In any case, Frank and Adele do what comes natural to consenting adults in such a situation. They bake a cobbler.
The worst thing that has happened to the pastry industry since Jason Biggs humped one in American Pie, Labor Day’s central erotic set piece is a howler for the ages. Amid lushly photographed close-ups of these lovers’ hands intertwining, wrist deep and writhing amid the creamy fruit center, Brolin takes command. “Enough about filling. I want to talk about crust.”
It’s a hideous Harlequin romance novel with all the good parts cut out, as Reitman inexplicably keeps drifting back to Henry’s point of view, but only occasionally. Then sometimes it’s Adele’s film. Other times the movie belongs to Frank. It’s impossible to tell what we’re supposed to be getting at here with this silly story, whose flashbacks we’re watching at a given moment, and why anybody in their right mind would ever hire Tobey Maguire to deliver a voice-over narration. Last year, in The Great Gatsby, Maguire’s strangled-cat whimpering brutalized some of the finest passages F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote. So you can only imagine what he does to Maynard’s text.
Jason Reitman is a slick kid whose dad directed Ghostbusters; thus he was handed the keys to the kingdom at the tender age of 28. (In Hollywood, allegations of nepotism only stick if you’re a girl like Sofia Coppola or Lena Dunham.) The know-nothing glibness of Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Young Adult rankled this particular critic, but be careful what you wish for, because the supposed sincerity of Labor Day is, astoundingly, quite comically worse.
In 10 years, I expect this will be playing the midnight camp circuit alongside The Room at the Coolidge Corner. I just hope for the theater staff’s sake that people don’t throw pies at the screen.
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek and Tobey Maguire. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard. Written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.