“The book was so much better.”
That assessment is so common it’s practically become a truism: whenever a book is made into a movie, the film just doesn’t measure up.
That’s the case in spades with “Labor Day,” the new Jason Reitman film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.
There are a lot of reasons why a good book doesn’t necessarily translate into a good movie. Sometimes novels are too long and meaty to fit into the two-hour time frame of most movies. Sometimes bad casting is unable to measure up to the richness of a book’s characters. And other times, a book’s voice, its interiority, can not easily be translated into the necessarily more external medium of the movies. That in a lot ways is what haunts the film version of “Labor Day,” based on a novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard.
The novel is a delicate, wistful reverie about a depressed, and nearly agoraphobic, mother who’s momentarily brought out of her shell by the oddest of circumstances.
Told in hindsight, from the point of view of her 13-year-old son, the telling is sensitive and insightful, psychologically astute and yet enveloped in nostalgia.
It’s a novel about how two equally desperate souls – this boy’s mother and a dangerous man on the run – might actually find some common ground. It ends up being about the mysteries of human emotions – about longing and loneliness, dreams and desires, about wanting to love and be loved.
All this delicate writing masks, however, a rather preposterous plot: an escaped convict, who forces a boy and his mom into harboring him for a few days at their home, ends up falling in love with the mother and vice-versa, over the course of one Labor Day weekend!
Ridiculous, I know, but that doesn’t matter much in the book because the plot is really just a set-up for an exploration of certain emotional dynamics.
But in the far more literal world of the movies, this far-fetched storyline can’t so easily be pushed into the background. At nearly every step of the way, despite excellent acting by both Winslet and Brolin, the characters’ developing emotions seem rushed, forced, and, simply put, unbelievable.
Brolin’s escapee is so idealized, for instance, he seems more like “Father and Husband of the Year” than a convicted murderer. He not only fixes everything around the house while he’s there, he also manages to teach the boy how to change a tire and throw a baseball. And he so sensuously teaches the Mom how to make a peach pie, it feels like the pottery-making scene in “Ghost.”
And to be able to do this over a single weekend! How could the mom and the boy NOT fall in love with him?
What in the book seems emotionally resonant, comes off as pure schmaltz in the movie.
No amount of great acting, and there is a lot of that in this movie, can quite overcome the preposterous nature of the plot. In the end, “Labor Day” strains credulity and breaks the bonds of common sense.