This article contains spoilers for ‘Labor Day.’ Proceed with caution unless you have already taken in all of the nonsense it has to offer, or if you are for some other reason free of spoiler-fear.
Seeing as I watched director Jason Reitman’s new film, Labor Day, after it was already a few days into its release, I figured that since I hadn’t heard much about it, chances were that it was just an ordinary movie. I mean, I’d heard some rumbling about how it was surprisingly bad, but given how much people have liked Reitman’s movies (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In the Air, Young Adult) up until this point, it made sense that he was probably due to make something that would disappoint. And yeah, the trailer looked pretty hokey, but who can’t go in for a sappy love story every once in a while?
It was pretty damned surprising to me then, just how contemptible Labor Day ended up being—and not in your usual bad movie way either. Sure, it was contrived. Sure, its characters often didn’t behave in any believably human way. And sure, it had some serious pacing problems. The real issues with this thing went so much further than problems with crafting though. At a very fundamental level, Labor Day tells a story that presupposes a woman can’t thrive in her life unless she’s permanently attached to a man, which is laughable. As soon as I got home I Googled the movie, expecting to be hit with a tidal wave of feminist rants denouncing it, but instead I came up nearly empty-handed. Sure, there was a review here or there that mentioned the word “sexism” once or twice, but no big angry reactions.
Why aren’t more people offended by this ridiculous movie?
The main problem with Labor Day is the mom character, Adele, who is played by Kate Winslet. We’re generally led to believe that she’s had some kind of traumatic past, which has left her skittish at best, and crippled with social anxiety at worst. She can’t make any decisions for herself, she goes into shaking fits when asked to perform even the most menial of tasks, and she spends all of her time holed up in her crumbling house with her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), like some modern-day Miss Havisham. Though he’s only 13, Henry does his best to take care of her, so when the film opens you kind of think it’s going to be a drama about what it’s like to live with a parent who’s experienced trauma—which could have been interesting—but ultimately that’s not what Labor Day ends up being about at all.
The thing that really sets the story into motion is when Adele and Henry are gently taken hostage by an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin), who is bleeding and on the run. Despite the fact that he isn’t carrying a weapon and doesn’t openly threaten them, Frank is able to approach Henry and Adele in a very public place and instruct them that they need to take him home with them so that he can have some place to lay low for a while. Deferring to his masculine authority or whatever, they acquiesce. That’s when the story gets downright insulting.
After Frank the convict is around for just a few hours, Adele and Henry’s house starts to come alive. The air blossoms with the smell of chopped vegetables, the sounds of sizzling meats fill the kitchen, crumbling walls are repaired, squeaky stairs are fixed, Henry learns how to throw a baseball (which is portrayed as being as essential life skill), and Adele goes from looking like a shivering puppy who was found out in the rain to being a relaxed, confident woman who eventually starts facing her fears, willing herself through her physical maladies, and moving her life forward for the first time in a long time. You see, without being at the side of a man she was less than whole, but now that she has someone to attach herself to, purpose has allowed her to pick up her broken pieces.
This theme is further driven home through the Henry character’s voice-over narration, where he explains to us that he tried his best to fill the role of a husband in his mother’s life, but he always knew that there was something missing in him that would allow him to truly do the job of taking care of her—and that something was the ability to give her the D, which her soul would then take in like nourishment. Before Frank’s presence in the house, Adele seemed to spend most of her time lazing around, having mother/son talks about how good sex feels and how much people crave it, but then after a creepy scene where the kid sits up at night listening to Frank noisily putting it to his mom, the story pivots in a crucial way, and three people who were previously lost souls finally come together as a family unit. What an unbelievable turd this thing is, and we haven’t even gotten to the part where Adele shows how truly passive she can get.
After Frank anoints Adele with his penis as once again being a human being, he then convinces her that it would be in her best interest to take her son out of school and away from the only home he has ever known, empty all of her money out of her bank account, leave most of her possessions behind, and flee up to Canada where she can start a new life as his wife/sugar momma. After only three days of living with this known murderer who took her hostage, she agrees, and we as the audience are apparently not supposed to be of the opinion that this is a bad idea. As a matter of fact, there are then tension-building scenes where things go wrong and it doesn’t quite look like they’re going to be able to make it to Canada, and we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats thinking, “On no! What if she’s not able to ruin her son’s life so that she doesn’t have to go to bed alone at night? That would be a disaster!”
The biggest of the obstacles obstructing the path to Canada is when Adele finally confesses to Frank about the traumatic experiences that led to her being such a mess at the beginning of the movie. You see, after having Henry, Adele was never able to have another child. She suffered through a couple of early miscarriages and one particularly awful experience where she gave birth to a stillborn child, and that’s why her first husband eventually left her. And that’s why she doesn’t want Frank to throw away his promising life as an escaped con who’s the subject of a massive manhunt to live on her money in Canada, because she can’t have anymore kids, and a woman is essentially a waste of organic matter if she can’t give a man a child. Like some kind of miracle though, Frank is such a good guy that he let’s her know a wife, a stepchild, a ride out of town, and her emptied bank account will do just fine, and that it’s not that a deal-breaker that she can’t have anymore kids. The tone the scene takes seems to be that Frank’s acceptance of her barren womb should come as a true relief to us, and that what we’ve just witnessed is a beautifully romantic moment between one of cinema’s great couples.
Stupefied by the fact that nobody else seemed to walk out of this movie having had their blood turned to venom, I then went to the source material to investigate whether or not it was as insulting to women as the movie it spawned. Labor Day started its life as a novel by author Joyce Maynard, so I went over to the book’s Goodreads page to see how people who read it responded to it. The reviews there didn’t help out my case much at all. While they didn’t lean too heavily one way or the other, a decently larger amount of Goodreads users liked the book than didn’t like it, and even in the reviews where people only gave it one or two stars I wasn’t able to find any cases of people throwing around words like “sexist” or “misogynist,” and those are two of the words that people like to throw around on the Internet more than any other. It looked like I was going to have to crack open the book and read a little bit of it myself—and that’s where I finally found at least a little bit of explanation for why I responded so negatively to the movie.
While Maynard’s book tells basically the same story as the movie, and shares a lot of its unfortunate themes of feminine subservience and masculine greatness, it at least makes the Adele character look like much more of a creep, and much more of a destructive force in her son’s life. The entire book is told from Henry’s point of view, and it’s pretty clear that he’s been brainwashed to her way of thinking by living with her his entire life, and it’s quite a bit clearer that her decisions are the selfish sort of decisions that are eventually going to ruin his life. The book is still insulting toward women, and is still just plain bad, but it might have been Reitman’s strengths as a director that served to shine a spotlight on all of the story’s faults. The trio’s weekend together was just shot so beautifully, in such warm tones, and their erotic pie-making and triumphant games of catch were presented so evocatively that the movie couldn’t help but take on the tone of being pure romance, when it should have been a much darker tale.
Of course, the differences in tone between the book and the movie work to help explain why I had such a strongly negative reaction to the movie, but it still doesn’t excuse all of the sexism that sits right at the center of this story. Any way you look at it, Labor Day is a story that opines that women aren’t complete until they woo a man, that they’re only of worth as long as they can provide children. It promotes female passivity to the point where the Adele character can’t even think of any ways to change a lightbulb in a fixture that’s higher than she can reach. You could go back in time and show this movie to people from the 50s, and the people from the 50s would be like, “Damn movie, that’s some backward shit,” so why does there seem to be so few modern people who feel compelled to shout it down as being wrong-headed and offensive? Is it just because not that many people saw it? Is it because it’s just too silly a movie to take seriously? Or have I really become one of those easily-offended ninnies who goes around trying to project their principles and beliefs onto everything I see?
Come on, I just need one feminist blog to write a hate-post about this movie and I’ll feel a lot better. There’s no way we’re still accepting depictions of gender roles that look like this in 2014.