LABOR DAY. At first it seemed odd that a movie by Jason Reitman (Young Adult, Up in the Air) would be relegated to the dumping ground of mid-winter release. Reitman's become something of a prestige director in recent years, gathering up commercial success, critical accolades and major award nominations along the way. But as I watched Labor Day, the apparent lack of confidence on the part of its distributors started to make sense: this uneasy blend of period-melodrama and psychological realism is definitely not for everyone. I admire the intention here, and it would appear to be something of a passion project for Reitman — he adapted the screenplay from the novel by Joyce Maynard — but the movie never rises to the level of its ambition.
Adele (Kate Winslet), single mother of young Henry (Gattlin Griffith), has become so cripplingly depressed that she rarely leaves the house. Her depression—or rather his inability to cope with it—we learn later on, is what led to the dissolution of her marriage to Gerald (Clark Gregg). On one of their monthly shopping trips, Henry is approached by an agitated, bleeding man asking for help. Adele tries to politely refuse, but ultimately she's powerless in the situation and agrees to first give the stranger a ride, and then hide him in her house. He, Frank (Josh Brolin), turns out to be a convicted murderer who has escaped from a nearby penitentiary by jumping from a second-story window while recovering from surgery.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the circumstances, Frank, Adele and Henry soon develop a rapport. Frank keeps house, changes the oil in the station wagon and teaches Henry how to hit a baseball. Through elliptical flash-backs, we learn a little of his backstory, and it becomes clear that the reserved mother and son are not only harboring him from the law, but filling a pronounced, long-standing void in his life. Soon enough, he and Adele have fallen in love and begun forming a plan to flee to Canada. Caught in the maelstrom of all this craziness, Henry is faced with the frightening, looming prospect of puberty, his strained relationship with his father and a burgeoning relationship with a darkly precocious new girl in town.
Again, I admire the intentions of Labor Day, but the novelistic explorations of absence, sadness and fulfillment it attempts don't pay off in the end. Winslet is convincing in her portrait of Adele as constantly rattled and afraid of the world, but the construction of her character is notably stronger than any of the others. Brolin does fine work as Frank, but there isn't enough to the character to build a real relationship with the audience. And he speaks in a strange, overly mannered way that borders on distracting.
Henry is ostensibly the center of the narrative, and it's primarily from his perspective that we watch it unfold. That is the movie's greatest, most unfortunate shortcoming. Griffith is a talented young actor, and Reitman directs him to an authentic, open performance. But there just isn't enough for him to do. The voice-over intones that he is preoccupied by the new specter of sex in his life, and he lies awake at night, listening to Adele and Frank's voices ebb into lovemaking. But Henry's perspective is never fully elucidated — despite his presence as an adult narrator — and the script fails to let him show us what it feels like to be a sensitive boy in the midst of such trying circumstances.
Despite its failures in character development and perspective, Labor Day is still pretty to look at, emotionally involving and replete with mid-late 1980s production design. The cast is excellent across the board, and the storytelling seems to come from a perspective of genuine sensitivity and care. But by the end, as it slides completely into saccharine resolution, it is distinguished more by its failures than its successes. PG13. 111m.
THAT AWKWARD MOMENT. They keep trying to reinvent the 20-something relationship comedy and I'm not sure why. This, like so many similar attempts, only comes off as derivative, pandering and simplistic. That Awkward Moment is also an unsexy sex comedy, which is beyond pointless.
To its credit, That Awkward Moment does boast a talented, likeable primary cast. Zac Efron is the cute cad who may have finally found love and doesn't know how to handle it. Michael B. Jordan is the successful doctor whose "perfect" marriage is on the outs. Miles Teller is the goofball/unlikely Lothario falling for his longtime wing-woman. They live in New York City and it's all very romantic and they drink a lot. The result plays more like a long-form commercial for J. Crew and Tecate than a movie. R. 94m.
— John J. Bennett
LEGO MOVIE. Lego pulls out all the blocks for an all-character adventure that looks like a plastic version of Comic Con. PG. 100m.
MONUMENTS MEN. George Clooney heads a singularly classy platoon of art experts on a mission to rescue priceless works from the Nazis. PG13. 118m.
VAMPIRE ACADEMY. Oh, good. More teen vampires. Comedy/action movie about a vampire and her BFF protector with cliques, bloodsucking and formals. PG13. 104m.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Julia Roberts scraps with her pill-popping mother, Meryl Streep, in the screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' play about a dysfunctional Midwestern family. R. 121m.
FROZEN. Kristen Bell in some standard Disney Princess fun with Josh Gad as a slapsticky snowman. Disney-oke showings available for those who need to burst into song. PG. 108m
HER. What if HAL crossed with Siri and sounded, you know, hot? Joaquin Phoenix is an introverted writer who falls in love with his upgrade. Like the relationship, it feels surprisingly real. R. 126m.
I, FRANKENSTEIN. Schlocky comic book adaptation with Aaron Eckhart as an immortal battling the undead. Not bad enough to be fun, not good enough to deserve Bill Nighy as its villain. PG13. 93m.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. Chris Pine takes up Tom Clancy's evergreen hero Jack Ryan, who counters financial terrorism with fun car chases and fistfights. Kenneth Branagh doubles as director and post-Soviet-chic villain. PG13. 105m.
LONE SURVIVOR. A Navy SEAL team mission in Afghanistan goes sideways leaving Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch between the rocks and the Taliban. Gripping and heartbreaking. R. 121m.
THE NUT JOB. An urban squirrel voiced by Will Arnett attempts to rip off a nut store. With Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl. PG. 86m.
RIDE ALONG. Ice Cube is a scowling cop with plans to terrify his sister's mouthy fiancé, Kevin Hart, by taking him on patrol. R. 89m.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. A raucous cautionary tale of greed, girls and schadenfreude with Leonardo DiCaprio as double-breasted douchebag Jordan Belfort, a self-made '80s stock tycoon who runs afoul of the Feds. R. 180m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill