Usually, at the end of each year, a handful of high-quality Oscar-caliber films arrive in movie theaters. But this was not the case in 2013. Rather, a wealth of films that for one reason or another have been deserved acclaimed have opened theatrically. PHILOMENA, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, NEBRASKA, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, AMERICAN HUSTLE, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, HER, and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY have followed PRISONERS, GRAVITY, ALL IS LOST, and 12 YEARS A SLAVE into movie houses.
And this list goes on.
As always, however, there are exceptions here. Some new films with high expectations do fall flat. One such film comes from a director with a high pedigree. Its star is well-respected, and an Oscar winner. The filmmaker is Jason Reitman, of JUNO and UP IN THE AIR fame. The star is Kate Winslet, a six-time Oscar nominee who won as Best Actress in 2009 for THE READER. The film is LABOR DAY.
LABOR DAY tells the odd, highly unlikely story of the evolving relationship between a forlorn single mother and a man who stumbles into her life, all in the course of the title holiday weekend. The two meet in public, but not in a way in which people usually come together. The woman, whose name is Adele and who is yearning for affection-- this is the Kate Winslet character-- is shopping with her 13-year-old son in a Walmart-K-Mart-Target-type store. She is approached by a man named Frank, who is played by Josh Brolin. Frank is a desperate character, but for an entirely different reason. For one thing, he is a prison escapee. For another, he is bleeding-- and he asks her for a ride. Adele is not naïve but she is lonely and longing for love, so she accepts. Next, she allows Frank into her home without knowing who he is, what he may really want, or how he was injured.
Surely, if he was not on the run, Frank would approach a person in authority for help-- a store security guard, for example. But he does not, because he is serving an eighteen-year murder sentence.
As the story in LABOR DAY plays itself out, we in the audience are asked to somehow care for these characters, and even root for them, because we are supposed to relate to their vulnerability. The problem is that these characters and their connection are not at all credible. Even if Adele is starved for affection, even if she is longing for love, why would she choose this particular man? It quickly becomes apparent that Frank is, at his core, a decent man and even a potential role model for her son. But given his background and his situation, he just as easily might be a desperado who will endanger the life of Adele, as well as that of her child.
So why would she agree to help Frank? Why would she allow herself and her son to end up in what might be a life-threatening situation? These questions remained in my mind throughout the film’s highly questionable scenario.
The bottom line here is that, for every PHILOMENA or NEBRASKA or AMERICAN HUSTLE, there will be a LABOR DAY. For every award-caliber hit, there will be a more-than-occasional swing-and-miss.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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