Rose-coloured view of a romance on the run
Labor Day Grudge Match
(M) ★★★ ✩ National release from February 6
(M) ★★ ✩✩ National release from Thursday
FOR Hollywood in the teens of the 21st century, screen romance is pretty much the province of the young. This is nothing new, of course, but today’s romances, which it sometimes seems are invariably derived from novels by Nicholas Sparks, are, for the most part, superficial and trite. A fairly warm welcome, then, to Labor Day, a new film from Jason Reitman, director of such sophisticated movies as Juno and Up in the Air. Reitman’s screenplay for this mature love story is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the risk it takes in presenting a rather unusual amalgam of The Bridges of Madison County and The Desperate Hours.
The voice of Tobey Maguire narrates the events that occurred on the last weekend of the summer of 1987 (Labor Day weekend). Maguire’s character, Henry, is looking back at the time when he was 14, played by Gattlin Griffith, and living with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), in a suffocating suburban house. Adele is a deeply unhappy woman; her husband, Henry’s father (Clark Gregg), left them some time earlier for reasons that are revealed later in the film. He lives not far away with his new wife and children, and keeps in touch with his son, but Henry is acutely aware of his mother’s loneliness.
Like the character played by Meryl Streep in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Madison County, Adele’s life is about to be transformed by the unexpected arrival of a stranger. When Adele and Henry visit the local supermarket on the Friday before the long weekend, they’re accosted by a man who forces them to drive him to their home.
The man, a convict who has just escaped from a prison hospital, is wounded and desperate. His name is Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) and he’s been serving 18 years for murder (again, the details of his crime only emerge late in the film). If he can hide out until his wound heals, he believes, he stands a chance of escaping the police dragnet that has locked down the area.
By this time the film has entered The Desperate Hours territory (the thriller in which a dangerous runaway convict takes over the home of an honest, average family and terrorises them). But that’s not the direction Labor Day is going to take, and therein lies the difficulty some audiences may experience with it. Frank proves to be the most decent, kindly, thoughtful escaped convict the screen has given us since We’re No Angels, and although the reasons for this are gradually, and for the most part pretty convincingly, explained, his behaviour is at times too good to be true.
Fortunately, Reitman is no hack director. His intelligence and skill manage to make the story’s improbabilities more acceptable than you might at first suppose and in this he’s enormously assisted by his three principal actors. Winslet beautifully captures the longing and frustration of the abandoned wife who reacts with a kind of amazement at the kindly presence of a man she at first feared would be a violent and dangerous intruder. And though Brolin’s Frank is almost saintly (a handyman who can bake a peach pie, and a surrogate father into the bargain), the actor brings conviction to this challenging role. None of the drama would work as well as it does, though, without a strong young actor in the role of Henry, and Griffith achieves everything demanded of him. Although he’s too young to understand his mother’s needs, he gradually responds to the father figure who has unexpectedly entered his world. In addition, his scenes with a more experienced girl his own age, played with mature knowingness by Brighid Fleming, are particularly effective.
Though it undeniably tackles risky material and is a far cry from the light, humorous approach of the director’s better-known films, Labor Day is ultimately surprisingly satisfying, though the sentimental coda is a little cloying. As a bonus, it’s most beautifully photographed by Eric Steelberg, whose images of a remembered childhood, seen in this case through rose-coloured spectacles, are exquisitely achieved. IN 1993, Grumpy Old Men became a successful screen vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and more recently a couple of British television series featuring grumpy old men — and women — moaning about how things used to be better when they were young have been surprisingly successful. Perhaps that’s why some bright spark in Hollywood had the idea to team two of the screen’s most famous boxing heroes, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta (from Raging Bull) in a film that might have been titled ‘‘ Grumpy Old Men Knock Themselves Silly’’. Grudge Match is the title of this confection, and it seems squarely aimed at older cinemagoers who, these days, are just as likely to watch it on their television screens at home.
Here’s the set-up. Back in the early 80s (the first Rocky was made in 1976, Raging Bull in 1980), Henry ‘‘ Razor’’ Sharp (Stallone) and Billy ‘‘ The Kid’’ McDonnen (De Niro) were boxing rivals. As a fake documentary explains at the beginning of the film, they fought twice back then, with the results evenly divided between the two of them. A scheduled third fight never took place because of Razor’s abrupt retirement. Now Razor leads a lonely life in a rundown house under a freeway in Pittsburgh and works in a foundry, while Kid is seemingly more prosperous, the owner of both a used car business and a bar/steakhouse called Knocked Up. Dante Slate Jr (Kevin Hart), an eager young entrepreneur and perhaps a surrogate for whichever one of the film’s seven credited producers initiated the project, has the idea of re-teaming these ageing veterans in a match he has cutely named Grudgement Day. After a reel or so of objections, both men agree (if they hadn’t there wouldn’t have been a movie, of course) because both need the money.
This might have looked good on paper, and the champagne corks probably popped when both the ageing actors signed on for the film, but the result is pretty ordinary, mainly because there are no surprises.
The out-of-shape veterans both have their reasons for wanting the rematch, most of them centring around a long-ago rivalry for the same woman, Sally, who, right on cue, comes back into their lives and is charmingly portrayed by Kim Basinger. Not only that, but McDonnen gets to meet his long-lost son, BJ (Jon Bernthal), and impossibly cute grandson while Sharp is able to both give and receive support from his elderly coach, Lightning (a role in which Alan Arkin, for once, overdoes the curmudgeonly character he’s made his own of late).
Working from a cobbled-together screenplay by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, director Peter Segal pretty much goes through the motions. You’ve got Rocky v LaMotta — what else do you need? And so the cliches abound right up to the inevitable climax, in which two elderly men fight each other to the finish, a protracted sequence that will be unedifying to all but the most diehard fans of this sort of thing.
An amusing epilogue, involving Mike Tyson, is one of the minor highlights of a particularly contrived ‘‘ entertainment’’.
Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in
above; Sylvester Stone, Robert De Niro and Kevin Hart in