Purchase photos

'Labor Day' a wallowing melodrama

2/4/2014

Making sad movies is difficult. Tragic movies, on the other hand, are far easier. Killing off a main character at the end of the story after all of their pain and suffering is a universal theme with guaranteed payoff. A story that is sad, but not tragic, is much harder. The narrative is required to balance the inherent unpleasantness of its characters, setting or actions while struggling to end cathartically.

Making sad movies is difficult. Tragic movies, on the other hand, are far easier. Killing off a main character at the end of the story after all of their pain and suffering is a universal theme with guaranteed payoff. A story that is sad, but not tragic, is much harder. The narrative is required to balance the inherent unpleasantness of its characters, setting or actions while struggling to end cathartically.

"Labor Day" seemed like it was a ship inside a bottle. A ship is meant to sail, and the glass insulates the story enough it doesn't give the characters room to gain any momentum. Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet deliver well-crafted performances that occasionally make hairline fractures, but never enough to shatter the barrier.

My experience watching "Labor Day" has some similarity to my experience with "The Passion of the Christ." My problem, and that of the majority of the cinematic community, with "Passion" was it drowned its infrequent but enjoyable moments of hope in a sea of misery that ultimately destroyed the film's chance at making anything but a negative connection.

The same is true, on a far less biblical scale, of "Labor Day." There are rare moments of defiant romance and simple joy that rise into positive territory. When those moments end, however, the film makes the all-too-easy journey back to mediocre melodrama, where it stays -- and wallows.

That saddest part is the missed opportunity by director Jason Reitman. I would have expected a far greater piece of filmmaking from the director of "Juno" and the incredible "Up in the Air." I know you can't win them all, but this is a film that gets walked to first by a pitcher who comes close to no-hitters.

* 3 of 6 stars

James Gerstner works at Fort Hays State University Foundation.

james.gerstner@gmail.com